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Romanticism at the Met.

Sex, violence, horror, period costume dramas, bucolic idylls, terrifying cataclysms of nature, and grisly recent events. No, that's not, as you might think, a list of current offerings at the movies. Rather, these are subjects that visitors were likely to encounter at the Salon in Paris or the Royal Academy in London in the 1820s and 1830s. Present-day viewers can discover them at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until the beginning of January in "Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism," organized by the Tate, London. (1) While it could be argued that in the early nineteenth century the large public exhibitions held at the Salon and the Royal Academy served many of the functions that films do now, the point of departure for the thought-provoking show at the Met is not the role of the sensational in art at the time, but the paradoxical fact that what would now be called "cultural exchanges" between Britain and France increased and intensified after Napoleon's definitive defeat by Britain and its allies in 1815. French painters immersed themselves in the works of Shakespeare, Byron, and Sir Walter Scott. Scotland became a popular destination for both French and British travelers seeking glimpses of the Sublime without the inconvenience of crossing the Alps. British painters took studios in Paris and sent their most ambitious works to be exhibited at the Salon. French painters, admittedly, rarely showed at the Royal Academy, but at least one young Parisian exhibited his most scandalous picture to date in London, to great acclaim. The result was a lively dialogue between artists from both nations. British and French painters scrutinized each other's efforts carefully, apparently weighing what an English sculptor friend calls "what they could get off of it," while critics from both sides argued the merits of each camp. Both the nature and the effect of this give-and-take is the subject of "Crossing the Channel."

By assembling some of the most discussed works seen in the most important exhibitions of the period, the show presents vivid evidence of the dominant concerns of the artists of "the age of Romanticism" and demonstrates how the desiderata of the day were embodied both similarly and differently in the work of British and French painters. The selection ranges from the celebrated to the virtually unknown, from the magnificent to the preposterous. Such notables as John Constable, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Theodore Gericault, and Eugene Delacroix are represented by significant, often canonical canvases. The show also has its quota of run-of-the-mill, dated, or just plain silly works by people deservedly familiar mainly to specialists, but they, too, play their part in telling the story. By turns witty, disturbing, absorbing, surprising, and fun, "Crossing the Channel" is always intelligent and informative.

At the Met, the exhibition begins by putting you at sea, metaphorically and almost literally, by confronting you with a full-sized version of Gericault's celebrated Raft of the Medusa (1819, Musee du Louvre)--grisly current events category--which everyone knows does not travel. It's not only disconcerting to encounter this vast, utterly familiar image somewhere other than ha the Grand Galerie of the Louvre, sans frame, but it becomes almost immediately apparent that there's something not quite right about the picture before you. It's too bright and rough; the rigging and the threatening wave on the left are more clearly delineated, distracting you from the tiny ship on the horizon to the right and counterbalancing the terribly dead figure spilling off the pitching raft, almost at your feet. It turns out that this huge expanse of canvas is a replica, now in the Musee de Picardie, Amiens, made in 1859-1860 by two otherwise undistinguished Academicians, Pierre-Desire Guillement and Antoine-Eugene Ronjat, when the original started to fade.

Accompanying this surrogate are two remarkable British pictures: Turner's golden, storm-tossed Disaster at Sea (c. 1835, Tate Britain, London), a near-abstraction made explicit by a scribble of terrified figures in the waves; and a sleek, lurid, blood red and steel gray Sunset at Sea After a Storm (1824, Bristol Museums and Art Gallery) by Francis Danby. Together this initial grouping states some of the period's--and the exhibition's--principal themes. All of these images aim at roiling your feelings by turning natural forces into metaphors for emotion. Nature is presented as beautiful and scary--ravishing, but potentially life-threatening. The replica of The Raft of the Medusa becomes an emblem of the notion of "crossing the channel" since Gericault exhibited the vast picture with great success in London after its debut in Paris. British painters not only heard descriptions of this notoriously sensational work, but could see it for themselves. (The possible connections, both deliberate and inadvertent, between British paintings such as Turner's Disaster at Sea and Gericault's chilling tour de force are lucidly described--along with much else--in the exhibition's excellent, scrupulously researched catalogue.)

In a sense, The Raft of the Medusa sums up the entire period under review, with its dramatic contrast of pallid flesh and murky darks, and its suggestion of the interchangeability of death, madness, and survival. The very subject of The Raft is a paradigm. Gericault's choice of the culminating moment of a current event that occurred in a distant setting nearly combines Romanticism's taste for the exotic and the modern. Of course, The Raft of the Medusa, apart from its subject, could be described as a traditional history painting, a huge machine intended to demonstrate the artist's ability to render the large-scale human figure, clothed and nude, in a variety of poses, conditions, and mental states. But far from exalting its theme, as the Academy's high-minded precepts demanded, Gericault's picture is a cynical indictment of the bungling malfeasance of France's post-Napoleonic officialdom, much of which was recruited from the surviving families of the ancien regime. (The naval officers in charge of the frigate Medusa crowded 150 soldiers, sailors, and passengers onto an improvised life raft when the ship sank off the coast of Africa; fifteen survived after two weeks adrift.) It's interesting to compare Gericault's ferocious picture (even secondhand, in replica) with the exhibition's other overtly political painting by the other major French painter of the Romantic movement: Delacroix's elegant, seductive allegory Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux). Intended to commemorate a terrible defeat suffered by the Greeks that year, during their long struggle to throw off Turkish rule, the picture seems relatively conventional compared to Gericault's shiver-inducing image. Greece, presented as a voluptuous young woman with a fetchingly bare, impressive corsage, poses in a decorous gesture of submission; an obviously dead hand, trapped beneath the stone on which she kneels, suggests the desperate final act of the city's Greek defenders--they blew up their powder magazines, killing themselves as well as a good many Turks--while a tiny turbaned figure in the background symbolizes the victorious Turkish army. But it's a contemplative picture and eager to please, an elegant evocation of a "politically correct" subject of the day, devoid of the provocative horror and the anger of Gericault's heroically scaled canvas, which come through even in the replica.

Still more horrifying, however, and unequivocal evidence of Gericault's own hand is a group of his preparations for The Raft of the Medusa. Drawings show him working his way from relatively straightforward early conceptions towards the stunning final arrangement that brings the viewer almost on to the tossing raft with its gruesome passengers; powerful, closely observed oil studies of severed heads and truncated limbs, and a head of an exhausted-looking black man document the painter's extended, no-holds-barred quest for truthfulness and intensity. These marvelous, revealing works are in some ways more affecting than the huge canvas in the Louvre, partly because of their passionate touch, and partly because they are so obviously done from life, without a transforming narrative to remove them from the brute facts of suffering, mutilation, and death.

The exhibition documents cross-channel connections more cheerfully through such evidence as the twenty-six-year-old Delacroix's head of the English painter Thales Fielding--fresh-faced, energetic, and apparently startled by something beyond the boundaries of the little canvas--which is placed near Fielding's portrait of his friend Delacroix--serious and skeptical, with a mass of dark curls. A large gallery slightly over-filled with paintings exhibited at various times on one side of the channel or the other, conjures up the atmosphere of the Salon and the Royal Acedemy exhibition rooms and--helpfully--documents some of what artists of the day were able to see of each other's work. While the installation of "Crossing the Channel" at the Met is exponentially more economical than the horror vacui hanging that was routine in nineteenth-century exhibitions, it nonetheless combines rich, somber wall colors, a tighter hanging than usual, and the occasional double tier of canvases to induce a sense of exhausted overload that may evoke the experience of nineteenth-century shows. (Mercifully, "Crossing the Channel" turns out to be of manageable size.) Many of the works on view at the Met were seen at the Paris Salons of 1824 and 1827, known as the "English Salons" because so many British painters were included. In 1824, four of them--Sir Thomas Lawrence, John Constable, and Delacroix's friends Thales Fielding and the expatriate Richard Parkes Bonington--were awarded medals by Charles X to the amazement of many French observers.

The reaction of Stendhal, writing in the Journal de Paris, was typical. (He wrote La Chartreuse de Parme and Le Rouge et le Noir about fifteen years later, long after he had established a reputation in the relatively new field of art criticism; earlier, when his military career took him to Italy, he had written a book on Italian art.) A passionate advocate of what was then the hot new movement, Romanticism, and an equally passionate enemy of Academic classicism, Stendhal nevertheless disliked the portrait of the duc de Richelieu that the English superstar Lawrence exhibited at the Salon (not the cardinal and not in the Met's exhibition), declaring it "to possess little merit," despite acknowledging its animation. It wasn't simply chauvinistic preference for the French School. Stendhal also disliked one of the arch-Romantic Delacroix's paeans to Greek suffering during their War of Independence, which he characterized as "a picture that was intended to depict a plague, and whose author, after having read the newspapers, turned it into a Massacre at Scio" (now in the Louvre, but not at the Met). Stendhal does allow that Delacroix has "a feeling for color," but grants Lawrence no redeeming qualities other than setting an example of how one might "depict the appearance of nature by means that are opposed to those of French painters." The British painter must be "very clever" to have placed himself "at the head of the arts in England" on the strength of so little talent, "or else our neighbors in London must be very poor connoisseurs."

"In contrast," Stendhal continues, "the English have sent us magnificent landscapes this year, those of Mr. Constable. I do not think we have anything to equal them. The truthfulness catches the eye and draws one." Like many French viewers, Stendhal was troubled by the informality and rough surfaces of the British painter's efforts; their seemingly unedited response to nature was very different from the more conceptualized French approach of the period. Other critics and Academicians were interested in Constable's technique, but faulted his choice of rural scenes as not being elevated enough. Stendhal, however, despite his reservations, was forced to follow the dictates of his eye. "The casualness of Mr. Constable's broad brush is extreme and the composition of his pictures is not thought through, also he has no ideal; but his delightful landscape with a dog on the left is a mirror of nature." Stendhal concludes by saying that the Constable--The Hay Wain--completely eclipses a French landscape hung near it. The Hay Wain is not included in the selection at the Met, but this omission is more than compensated for by the presence of another of Constable's submissions to the Salon of 1824, the fresh, vigorous View on the Stour near Dedham (1822, The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens), with its glittering water, straining boatmen, and palpable sense of moist English air; an ample selection of other fine Constables throughout the exhibition also helps.

As in the Salons and the Royal Academy shows, finding quality work takes a certain amount of effort, since there is a good deal of what is most politely described as extremely competent but not particularly riveting painting. But there are also many high points along the way, such as the lively, airy landscapes of Bonington and Theodore Rousseau, or the small, firmly structured, loosely painted hunting scenes by Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, designed for private collectors. Since, according to the organizers of the exhibition, the immediacy of English landscape paintings such as Bonington's or Constable's was a powerful stimulant to painters like Rousseau, the French plein air tradition of the Barbizon School, which ultimately led to Impressionism, can be traced, at least in part, to the example of the British landscapes exhibited at the "English Salons" or seen by French painters on visits to England. Yet the inclusion at the Met of some sparkling early works by that Salon regular Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, with their assured architecture of generous brushmarks and their faultless orchestration of tones, is evidence that plein air painting has other roots. The landscape studies French (and British) artists made in Italy, in their efforts to assimilate the settings where Roman history was enacted, were also influential--once Corot realized that such sturdy, light-filled pictures could be ends in themselves and not simply research.

It's harder to make a case for cross-Channel influence as the reason for including a delectable, brushy Delacroix of a nude odalisque, her voluptuous indolence heightened by rich, Venetian-inspired color, but she is a welcome addition and one that sharply criticizes a group of English and French mythological and literary subjects notable mainly for slippery renditions of impossibly idealized bodies. Delacroix's fleshy reclining nude completely eclipses, to use Stendhal's formulation, a weird scene by a once highly admired colleague, depicting Othello and a lifeless Desdemona who seems about to slide, head first, off the bed on which he has strangled her, although here the connection between British source and French painter explains the inclusion of this dubious work. There's no doubt about why a fascinating but distinctly oddball Turner was chosen; Rouen: View from the Left Bank in the Faubourg St.-Sever (1827-1828?, Tate, London) is one of a series of oil studies the cantankerous English painter made on visits to France. The brooding, broadly handled little picture plays rows of schematic figures against rows of trees, all softened by hazy light; the result, oddly, seems to anticipate Puvis de Chavannes.

Impressive as the Constables and Turners are and potent as their influence undoubtedly was, "Crossing the Channel" emphasizes neither landscape painting nor improvisations based on French architecture nor celebrations of the sea, its moods and lights. As you move through the show, you discover galleries devoted to gloomy Gothic ruins, tales from mythology, orientalia, animals, and scenes from Shakespeare, Scott, and Byron--especially those involving bloodshed, ravishment, and high drama. While literary subjects seem to have inspired some of the most inadvertently hilarious works in the show, including (in addition to that silly scene from Othello) a real rouser from a Walter Scott novel in which an anxious nobleman, his cowering daughter, and a stalwart old beggar react to the prospect of being swept away by a monster wave, the animal category includes some of the goriest works on view, as well as one of the most extraordinary, Gericault's Horse Frightened by a Storm (c. 1821-1822, National Gallery, London). The idea is remarkable enough: a picture that makes visible the emotions of an animal--admittedly while the artist also takes full advantage of the excuse to paint extreme effects of light. Other French and British painters explored the possibility of the motif, but they illustrated the situation, showing horses plunging in terror, and profiting from the opportunity to show off their ability to depict equine anatomy accurately, no matter how convoluted the pose, rather than their ability to empathize with their subjects. What is astonishing about Gericault's picture is its inwardness. His dappled stallion is preternaturally still, shrinking into himself as though repelled by the edges of the canvas as much as by the fierce weather suggested by inky clouds and the agitated brushwork of the lower part of the canvas; his pale presence, luminous against the dark sky, is the equivalent of the introspective, livid bodies on The Raft of the Medusa. That Gericault should have been interested in evoking abstractly the psychological state of a horse, rather than depicting the actions of a terrified beast, becomes even more interesting when you remember that only a few years before painting Horse Frightened by a Storm, he executed a series of portraits of disturbed individuals, possibly commissioned by a doctor acquaintance; two of these penetrating, sympathetic images of "monomaniacs"--people believed to have highly specialized aberrations, such as kleptomania or excessive jealousy--are among the most compelling works in the show. Of course, of his first two teachers, one has been described as a monomaniac about antiquity, the other as a monomaniac about horses; there's an early Gericault which seems to demonstrate how many back views of horses can be packed on to a single canvas in stacked rows.

"Crossing the Channel" ends with a good deal of Sturm und Drang--a group of works based on thrilling novels, stirring narrative poems, tragic plays, and the like, but a gallery of impeccably chosen watercolors acts as a welcome antidote to all this unbridled emotion--not that similar themes and even more brutal ones, such as tigers attacking horses, aren't represented among the watercolors. But the intimate scale and rapid touch of these nineteenth-century works on paper, with their suggestion of speed, directness, and spontaneity, make the paintings in this section specially appealing to present-day eyes. It was largely the British who pioneered watercolor as a "serious" medium, not only exploiting its portability and flexibility to adopt it in working directly from nature, but also using it for finished, relatively large-scale works. Until well into the nineteenth century, the French considered watercolor to be a minor, rather expedient material, mostly useful for tinting drawings; the large number of sophisticated, accomplished works in this medium submitted by British exhibitors at the Salon of 1824 helped to change this.

Ultimately, of course, the look of spontaneity produced by watercolor's quick-drying properties and notable resistance to overworking became one of the sought-after characteristics of later nineteenth-century French painting, culminating in Impressionism's assiduously cultivated appearance of speed and nonchalance. In the 1820s, though, the exhibition of a British watercolor could trigger a surprising amount of argument. Stendhal got into the fray, defending in the Journal de Paris a watercolor with a subject from Shakespeare by Delacroix's friend Thales Fielding: "I don't think much of watercolor; it is a poor genre, but the fable, too, is a small thing compared to an epic poem and La Fontaine is as immortal as Homer." To account for his admiration for Fielding's picture, which showed "Macbeth and Banquo stopped on the heath by the three witches," Stendhal says that he sees "in this watercolor a telling lesson in poetry; this is how supernatural things must be presented to the imagination.... A year from now, I will still remember this poor little watercolor of two square feet, and I will have forgotten, as will the public, those immense oil paintings which paper the grand Salon.... In the arts, one must touch deeply and leave a memory." Alas, you are unable to judge for yourself, since Fielding's watercolor is nowhere to be found in "Crossing the Channel." But there are plenty of other engaging works, both epic poems and fables, to reward your attention. As visitors to the Salons and the Royal Academy shows once did, you may allow the large, flashy inclusions to declare themselves from a distance. Many of them are very fine, indeed, but there are also many pleasant surprises of a more intimate kind to be had. Perhaps, as visitors to the Salon and the Academy once did, you should return to "Crossing the Channel" more than once, in order to discover something different every time.

(1) "Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism" opened at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, on October 8, 2003 and remains on view through January 4, 2004. The exhibition was previously on view at Tate Britain, London, and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota. A catalogue of the exhibition has been published by Tate Publishing (296 pages, $60).
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Author:Wilkin, Karen
Publication:New Criterion
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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