National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 2, 1978-1979

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Author & Subject

Bacchus and Ariadne, by Antoine-Jean Gros

by Thomas W. Gaehtgens

Article en français
Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  

It is still difficult today to arrive at a balanced judgement of the work of Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) because his paintings are equally characterized on the one hand by peaks of artistic genius and on the other hand by dull routine. Even his contemporaries were unable to ignore contradictions in his artistic production. The most passionate admirers of his sketches, history paintings, and portraits of the Napoleonic era, were repelled by his later mythological works, which they regarded as a betrayal of his talent. Classicism and Romanticism - no matter how imprecise the usage of the se terms - often clash directly in his work.

Gros's development as an artist would have been inconceivable without the continual discussions he had with his teacher Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), on whom he grew increasingly dependent. When David was forced to go into exile in Brussels in 1816, he entrusted Gros with the running of his large studio, thus thrusting a burden of responsibility onto the sensitive painter which he was not always able to bear. Furthermore, his revered teacher never ceased to influence Gros, even from a distance, sending him advice which moulded Gros's artistic production along lines which David desired. For example, he wrote to Gros in Paris on 27 December 1819: "Now you are just as dignified as your rivals....You can surpass them in talent; do a history painting....You are a master at nudes, and with a good brush and beautiful colour, what more do you need?" (1) It is not unjustified to assume that Gros's artistic dependence on his master became so great that it suppressed the spontaneity of his own talents.

Again and again David almost stubbornly insisted that Gros devote himself to painting history subjects, and he wrote to Gros once more about six months later on 22 June 1820 asking:

Do you still plan to do a major history painting? I think you should. You love your work too much to do futile subjects and occasional paintings only. Posterity is a severe judge, my friend, and you will be forgotten unless you do some outstanding history works. So put on your tragic mask for Count Schoenborn's painting. The public Salon is not going to open until April 1822, so you have enough time to do what is expected of you. Time is passing, we are getting older, and you have not yet done what could be called a true history painting. (2)
By, "history paintings", (tableaux d'histoire) David can only have meant a mythological subject or a scene from antiquity. The painting Bacchus and Ariadne in the National Gallery of Canada (fig. 1) may possibly have been what David had in mind, although, since history paintings were not in favour at the time, this is one of those paintings that earned Gros something other than praise and approbation.

We know of two versions of the work which vary little in their execution. The first version, signed and dated 1821, was painted for Count Erwin von Schoenborn, who wanted the painting for his collection in Mainz. It is, in fact, the painting referred to by David in his letter, quoted above, and which was acquired a few years ago by the Phoenix Art Museum Collection. (3) Gros himself did a second version of the painting which David, who was still in Brussels, wanted to see, as is evident from his letter of 1 April 1821:
Let's talk about you, my friend. You have just finished your painting of Bacchus and Ariadne. You cannot doubt that I would take pleasure in seeing it, but long ago I became used to privation, and this is one of the worst forms of it I have had to endure. But I must be patient and willing to surfer for such a good cause. (4)
Gros exhibited this second version, which is now in the National Gallery of Canada, at the Salon of 1822 under No. 616. (5)

Bacchus and Ariadne, a composition of half-length figures, represents the grieving Ariadne on the island of Naxos after her lover Theseus, the son of Aegeus, has abandoned her. Theseus, to whom Ariadne had given the thread that enabled him to find his way out of the Labyrinth of the Minotaur in Crete, had brought Ariadne to Naxos only to abandon her a short time afterwards. With a tear in her eye, the naked beauty points towards the sailing ship in the background which is bearing the prince away to new heroic deeds. Ariadne is forsaken, but she quickly finds a new lover who is already holding her in his arms and trying to comfort her. Bacchus, the son of Jupiter and Semele, on his way back from having conquered India, passes through Naxos. He learns of Ariadne's misfortune, declares his love for her, and marries her. (6)

The pain of a love that has died, coupled with the solace of a new love that is just commencing, is the central theme of the painting. Ariadne, naked save for a garment draped over her legs, is depicted facing the viewer and pointing with her right hand to the cause of her unhappiness. In her left hand she is already holding the crown of stars she will receive from Vulcan at the time of her marriage. She appears to have been enveloped in a veil which has been lifted by the wind and has wrapped itself in loose folds around her head and around the thyrus carried by Bacchus. The god is seated behind her and supports her as she falls back against him. In his right hand he holds his staff while his left hand tenderly clasps her right arm. The crown of vine leaves in his hair and the panther at the right of the picture identify him clearly as the God of Wine, returning from India. His face, which is shown in sharp profile, is turned tenderly towards Ariadne.

What Gros has tried to capture in his painting is the moment of transition from an old lover to a new one. Ariadne's countenance clearly expresses the pangs of separation and the disappointment at being abandoned by her lover, but one can also see there the expectancy and hope engendered by her comforter's attentions. The composition of the painting, and the emotional and physical drawing together implicit in the attitudes of the two figures, underline this story. In sinking gently back, Ariadne is not only expressing her grief but also offering herself to her new lover. She points toward the sailing vessel in the distance merely by way of explanation, not in an involuntary gesture of angry reproof. Her movement is caught up in the loose folds of the veil around her head which would block her view of the departing Theseus if she were to turn around. But she does not look around, and the thyrsus held by Bacchus restricts the movement of her pointing arm and guides her into his embrace. In her left hand she is already holding the crown of stars which is the symbol of her being joined with Bacchus. The motives behind her gestures are reflected in the expression on her face, which is halfway between tears and smiles.

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