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

Annual Bulletin 2, 1978-1979

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Bacchus and Ariadne, by Antoine-Jean Gros

by Thomas W. Gaehtgens

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Despite these critical comments in the introduction to his review of the Salon, he does not condemn Gros's painting. On the contrary, he gives a very detailed and subtle appraisal of Bacchus and Ariadne, and, unlike most other critics, recognizes and stresses the skillfully-created dual nature of Ariadne. He is, of course, well aware of Gros's talent for history painting and he is also prepared to admit that Gros is a versatile artist, but he cannot refrain from closing his remarks with a warning to young artists not to take Gros as their model. Since Delécluze's observations are of outstanding importance in the context of the art criticism of the period, we will quote theme here in their entirety:

Again he has put in the exhibition on Ariadne, who has been abandoned by Theseus on the Island of Naxos, being consoled by Bacchus. It would be pedantic to expect strict adherence to antique traditions in this case. The intention of Mr. Gros is to present in a brilliant and ingenious form one of those well-worn themes which derive their charm from the new form of expression given to them. This is to painting what the Matron of Ephesus, the Gambler's Widow or the Fruitless Rejuvenation are to poetry. The subject means nothing in itself; its merit is in the elegant treatment of it. Mr Gros has been criticized for having misused half-figures and for leaning too heavily on his precious ability to use rich colours. It is true that the dominant pink tone is too forced. But what a pleasure it is to see skilled touches which highlight the delicate form and colour of his subject's skin. Those who have had an opportunity to see this painting will be able to follow all of the fine undulations which cannot be described on paper and which are the hallmarks of the consumate artist. Perhaps Bacchus's head does need more elevation, but Ariadne seems to be where the theme of the painting has been focused. This nonchalant beauty lying in the arms of Bacchus is already holding the immortal crown in her hand. The tender victim is weeping as the unfaithful Theseus sails off into the distance, but a smile is playing on her lips. This ambivalence, rendered with artistry and finesses, explains and characterizes the painting, which should be considered on a parallel with a fine piece of light poetry. Looking at it in relation to the artist's great works, one must applaud that smooth flexibility of his talent; but in regard to the state of the School, it is somewhat distressing to see a master deal with a love theme which might be misinterpreted in imitation and lead students of Gros to the type of affection which is only too prevalent these days." (30)
Delécluze studied Gros's painting in depth and with extreme insight, and he saw accurately how Gros had tried to capture one specific moment in the love story. Most of the other critics of the Salon of 1822 dealt with the painting mainly in a superficial way, concentrating often only on the painting technique and not on the composition of the work. The "Observateur et Arlequin aux Salons", for example, wrote: "Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus on the Island of Naxos and Rescued and Consoled by Bacchus, by M. Gros, contains only half-figures, but they are done in larger proportions than in the previous work, and the delicate lines, fresh colours and sweet expressions prove that M. Gros, who is such a master at doing severe masculine subjects, is second to none when softness and flexible brushwork are required." (31)

The critic of the Journal de Paris (32) made some very negative remarks about another of Gros's works, David Summoned by Saul to Soothe the King's Melancholy with Music, (33) also exhibited at the 1822 Salon. But he was positive in his assessment of Bacchus and Ariadne:
This production is not without certain mannerisms. The flesh of Bacchus is too florid, too effeminate. The women's veil is too heavy, and the blond hair of both figures is lacklustre and needs lightening. Finally, the painting's pink tone lacks verisimilitude. But Ariadne's face is so charming! If at first glance the smile on her bright red lips seems out of harmony with the tear falling from here eye, let us take a closer look. Just a moment ago the daughter of Minos was thinking only of Theseus and his treachery, but now she finds herself in the arms of a young immortal whose ability to console is unparalleled.
In this moment which will until soon slip by,
The last trace of sadness is but a little cloud,
Dissipated, after the storm
By the first ray of pleasure breaking through.

I envy Mr Gros if he ever had the good fortune of finding such an attractive model! Only in the ideal woman could one hope to find this combination of feminine charm and voluptuousness. I readily agree that these flattering charms are nothing more than conventions, and I think that in trying to imitate this brilliant manner our young artists would soon go astray; but let it be admitted that if Mr Gros is deceiving us, he is doing it so graciously, and the illusion produced is so delightful that I am tempted to write under his painting:
That which is pleasing is beyond reproach! (34)

As these quotations show, the art critics fully understood the iconographical changes which Gros had wrought and even though they were critical of certain details, by and large they praised the painting. And yet when the work, having found its way into the collection of H. Bizet, was auctioned in 1828, no buyer could be found who was prepared to pay 4,500 francs to acquire the painting, even though the compiler of the auction catalogue had explained the quality of the work in a long analytical description. It may perhaps be illuminating to quote this text as well, which appeared during the artist's lifetime, because the special praise it contains is not reserved for the painting alone. The author deliberately stresses that this is a work done by an important painter of history subjects and not by a genre artist. He does not wish to see either the painting or the artist classified at a lower level of artistic creation, namely in the category of genre painting, which was still regarded as inferior in early part of the nineteenth century.

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