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Art notes: The Enlightenment at the Royal Academy.

Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, a collection of portraits from the years 1760 to 1830, is at the Royal Academy until 20 April. Thematic exhibitions of social and political change over long periods, such as seventy years, lose both coherence and interest unless there are volatile artists avid to record each innovator. Only in one of the nine sections of the elephantine exhibition ('The Cultural Portrait') does this fully apply. It is also a room of surprises, which refreshes one on an arduous circuit of 145 portraits, not all of artistic merit.

Here Bertel Thorwaldsen exchanges portraits with Horace Vernet. The Danish Neoclassicist sculpted a bust of Vernet. In return the dapper French recorder of the remains of a classical past painted Thorwaldsen with the bust at his beefy elbow. Neither is as one imagined him. Thorwaldsen's rubicund Falstaffian face and dangling dapple-grey locks are not at all as heroic as his statues. In turn, Vernet's intense bony features belie the placidity of his views of the antiquities of Rome. One supposes that Goethe responded with an Olympian chuckle to Christian Rauch's representation of him in a toga. Yet Sir Joshua Reynolds thought it an advantage to dress figures in classical costume, since classical antiquity was familiar to all Europe and so had universal recognition. That may be why Samuel Johnson is also dressed in a toga in his monument in St Paul's Cathedral.

Pushing further the notion that contemporary costume is ephemeral, Pigalle here sculpts Voltaire naked in all his frank emaciation: the indomitable philosopher, contemptuous of both convention and vanity, saw no reason why not. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, likewise, did not demur at his countryman Allan Ramsay's unflattering portrayal of his droll, heavy and whisky-flushed face.

Most unexpected of all is a rare lapse of taste by the most gracious portraitist of her age, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun's picture of Mme de Stael (author of an influential study of the German Romantic Movement): rapt, maniacally dishevelled, pendulous of face, and corpulently tweaking a lyre in the Swiss Alps. Vigee-Lebrun more than redeems herself in the section called 'The Status Portrait' with her trim felicity of drawing and composition in the portrait of the comtesse de la Chatre. The portrait shames its neighbour, the portrait of the marquise d'Orvilliers delineated, with his usual coarse, unvisionary veracity and unselective minuteness, by Jacques-Louis David.

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Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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