Influenced by Impressionism, Post-Impressionist French artist Paul Cézanne was often compared to established Academic painters like William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Alexandre Cabanel. When compared to the careful modeling of the human form, perfectly blended colors, and hidden brushstrokes of Bouguereau and Cabanel, Cézanne’s flat figures, sketchy brushwork, and unmodulated colors were seen as unintentional and incompetent. Eventually, and thanks to the precedents set by artists like Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet, Cézanne’s style began to be seen as intentional and exemplary, allowing works like Bathers to influence later artists and styles.
Bathers is Cézanne’s endeavor to not paint like Bouguereau or Cabanel. The conscious absence of those Academic elements allowed Cézanne to define a new way in which to relate to the world. The eleven nude female figures are abstract and sculptural instead of carefully formed to represent the ideal nude body. Cézanne moves from color to color instead of tone to tone, rejecting photographic likeness of body and landscape. The brushstrokes are sketchy and used to show a change in color and light. Cézanne uses plains of color to suggest dimension, but the collapse of the figures within the landscape makes it hard to forget that you are looking at a two dimensional painting. Cézanne plays with illusion, as the brushstrokes don’t conform to the optical qualities of an object but to the tactile qualities. This changed how one interacted with a painting and defined a new, Modern tradition of looking at a painting.
In early nineteenth century France, the arts were controlled by the Académie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts). Very much a conservative organization, the Académie was strict in who was allowed to be a member and what kind of art was allowed to be exhibited in their Salons. Women were not allowed to be members and most of the male members were past middle age which caused tension and dissatisfaction among young artists in France. Very set in their ways and traditions, change did not come easy to the Académie as they rejected anything that wasn’t classical in style or morally uplifting in subject matter. However, young artists like Théodore Géricault began to change the typical history painting supported by the Académie by adding in elements of Romanticism and the sublime. Called into action by a French writer, Henri Beyle (who went under the pen name Stendhal), young French artists began to produce paintings that expressed human emotion and was engaged with the present time. Instead of representing the naked body of a hero that existed long ago, Stendhal wanted art that had a soul and would appeal to a variety of people. Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa was one such painting that brought the emotion and feeling from a contemporary event together with the classical qualities of an Académie-approved history painting.
The Raft of the Medusa was based off a shipwreck that happened in 1816 when the frigate, Medusa, ran ashore off the west coast of Africa. Carrying four hundred colonists and soldiers, there were only enough lifeboats for about half of the passengers. A raft was assembled from the ship’s wood to hold low-ranking soldiers and colonists, but the raft was so overloaded that most of it was submerged under water. Abandoned by the rest of the passengers, only fifteen passengers survived aboard the make-shift raft, causing a huge scandal to erupt in France as it became clear that the tragedy had occurred because of an incompetent and unskilled captain. For a country that was unhappy with competency of their leaders, the Bourbons, The Raft of the Medusa became the symbol for a country drifting and lost for lack of an experienced leader. This contemporary, un-heroic event involving common people- soldiers, sailors, and farmers- as the subject of a massive painting was groundbreaking, as other monumental history paintings were of heroic people and events from the past.
Géricault focused the painting on the moment when the fifteen survivors saw their rescue ship. Their makeshift raft fills up much of the picture plane, broken, battered, and at the mercy of the waves. Some men enthusiastically wave down the rescue ship while others cannot move due to weakness. Despite this incident being a current event, the painting is centered on the male nude, a characteristic of Classical art. Their bodies are naked or half-clothed calling upon the classical tradition of displaying the perfection of the human figure and displaying that figure in different poses. Starting in the lower left with the dead son being mourned by his father, the bodies move in a diagonal upward sweep that ends with the slave, waving down the rescue ship. This diagonal line represents the moral recovery from hopelessness to optimism experienced by the soldiers of the Medusa. The nude bodies also represent allegorical or mythological figures found in Neoclassical works, but the intrusion of contemporary elements like the cotton socks upon the feet of the dead son and the sailor pants upon the father dissuades the viewer from seeing these bodies as allegories or mythological figures, allowing Géricault to accomplish his goal of injecting Romantic elements into a Neoclassical painting and elevating a contemporary subject to that of a history painting.
During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, many artists shared the belief that art should realistically and faithfully record everyday life. Due to a rapidly urbanizing Europe, the representations of peaceful and everyday country living became appealing and the careers of artists like Rosa Bonheur took off. During the 1820s and 1830s, art was dominated by the Académie des Beaux Arts and artists had to create history paintings (with subjects that were political, historical, or religious) in order to be successful. But after the 1830’s, there was a backlash against the Académie as artists began to test the limits of what they could get away with. Naturalism was one such challenge, albeit a subtle challenge as its characteristics were pastoral and inviting and not threatening.
Bonheur’s Plowing in the Nivernais: The Dressing of Vinesis not a history painting, but a scene of everyday life. However, it was accepted by the Académie because it is a clean and safe image of the French countryside and its people. This monumental oil on canvas depicts four farm hands, who pale in comparison to their powerfully large animals, plowing the French landscape. The dirt they have moved is thrust into the foreground while the rolling hillside in the background is pleasant and pastoral. The painting is classically composed with the oxen on the right balancing out the hillside on the left. The work the men and oxen perform does not give the viewer any sense of real work or hardships making this a comfortable and non-threatening image for the urban French viewer. Paintings like Plowing in the Nivernais: The Dressing of Vines helped shape the future of Modernism as it was the beginning of the backlash against the Académie and helped paved the way for Realism and Impressionism.
The Oath of the Horatii was David’s first commission for the Academy and was inspired by an event in Roman history. David tells the heroic story of the Horatii brothers (three men on the left) who were chosen by the Romans to challenge the Curiatii from the neighboring town of Alba. As they receive their weapons from their father, the brothers are swearing to defend their land or die. One of the women on the right is Camilla who is engaged to one of the Curiatii brothers posed to fight while one of the Curiatii sisters, Sabina, is married to a Horatii brother and resting her head upon Camilla. The women cling to each other in grief knowing they will either lose a brother or a husband. A nurse shelters the children from the scene, but a curious little boy takes a peek at the dramatics. Despite the heartbreak, the men stand steadfast in their oath to defend Rome. Dramatic scenes such as this were popular among French viewers as there was an interest in art that could reform public morality and empower the nation.
Set inside an empty stone hall, the painting is divided into three sections by the three stone arches in the background and is flooded by light from a hidden window on the left. The light glitters on the swords held by the father in the middle section and bounces of the helmets worn by the brothers. The three brothers stand firmly together, their arms outstretched towards the swords. The bodies of the men are muscular and energetic showing David’s talent in portraying the body. Their vigorous bodies stand in contrast to that of the women, who are slumped on the floor and are all sinuous curves and no muscle. The men wear bold colors of red and blue while the women appear more muted. The contrasts between the bodies show not only represent the differences between the roles of men in women in society, but also the two sides to war: honor and celebration on one side, anguish and misfortune on the other. With the depiction of the bodies and the classical subject matter, The Oath of the Horatii became an international sensation and a champion of the neoclassical style.
David poses a tough moral question within The Oath of the Horatii: does an individual’s allegiance lay ultimately with the family or the nation? While David has clearly expressed his answer with the determined and resolute faces of the brothers, he not so subtly reminds us of the costs when nation is placed over family. The message that patriotism trumps all other things has gotten The Oath of the Horatii to be attributed with the start of the French Revolution which took place four years after this painting was completed.