These works span the late 1780s to the early 1820s, from the French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquest of much of the continent, through to his defeat and the rise of a new political order. This was a traumatic period of communal violence, war and unstable peace in Europe and the Americas. While a product of their time, these works are not a simple reflection of it. From the second half of the eighteenth century, artists and critics increasingly turned to Greek and Roman antiquity as a model, while rejecting more recent work as trivial or morally corrupt. The “neo-classical” movement would come to dominate Europe, not as a single style, but as ways of thinking about art, its history, and its purpose. Its expression varied: grandeur, elegance, sweet lyricism, deliberate simplicity, even eroticism are all seen here.
The Gallery’s collection offers a succinct overview of painting and sculpture at a time of radical change and includes work by figures such as Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, a celebrated painter living in exile from France, and Jacques-Louis David, an artist, revolutionary and propagandist, as well as his students and rivals.
Step inside the European galleries of the National Gallery of Canada, and have a closer look at some of the masterpieces featured in this tour.
David identified with the Revolution and served in the government, where he was closely associated with Robespierre. After the latter’s fall, David was arrested. In prison, he drew a number of his fellow accused, who, like him, were supporters of the radical faction in politics.
Following David’s provisional release from prison, the artist was allowed to stay on occasion with his friend Pierre Sériziat.
Paris of Troy is shown in a moment of reflection, gazing at a golden apple – a prize he will award to the most beautiful of the goddesses. His choice of Venus, goddess of Love, will ultimately set in motion the Trojan war and the near-destruction of his own people. Desmarais painted this in Rome, where he studied sponsored by the French state. Students were set tasks, such as painting the human figure as Desmarais has done, and the works sent back to Paris for criticism by the Academy, the official body of artists. While he was one of the young stars in Rome, Desmarais did not return to Paris, now in the throes of revolution, but instead made his career in Italy.
Bacchus’ followers – men, women, satyrs and putti (young children) – revel around the god of wine, free from restraint. Here, Marin, a pupil of Clodion, adapts one of his master’s compositions, exploring how sculpture could achieve the effects of painting. To represent depth and distance, parts project boldly from the surface, while other areas are in low relief, or incised into the clay. His work is sensitively modelled, but not over-finished, thus matching contemporary taste, which welcomed signs of the artist’s touch and creative process. Marin specialized in small terracottas, meant for intimate contemplation.
Vigée Le Brun fled France at the beginning of the Revolution. She spent the next decade in exile, much of it in St. Petersburg, where she painted Countess Tolstaya (1774–1825). The artist’s portraits are marked by a sense of apparent directness and intimacy – as if we meet the sitters as equals, sharing a bond of mutual understanding. The Countess, casually posed, is at one with her wild surroundings. Setting aside convention, she wears an unusually simple dress, inspired by Greek and Roman examples. The portrait holds out the promise of a life freed from society’s constrictions and more in sympathy with nature – a vital element of Enlightenment thought.
Valenciennes also explored this subject in a drawing in the Gallery’s collection:
Valenciennes illustrated a key moment from Montesquieu’s fable of love, transgression and loss, first published in 1725:
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After his mortal mother’s death, Jupiter’s son Bacchus was raised by nymphs. The jugs and the cup he holds evoke his role as god of wine. Clodion specialized in terracotta (baked clay) statuettes, handling his material with extraordinary skill and refinement. Such works are meant for intimate contemplation – every detail is to be enjoyed – and the sculpture can be viewed from all angles. Rather than pay homage to “grand” and heroic myth, Clodion instead favoured other aspects of Antiquity, the lyrical, elegant and erotically charged, which were much appreciated during the late 18th century.
Girodet was a friend of the sitter, shown here in the height of fashion. Her hairstyle and costume are inspired by ancient Roman sculpture; her white dress implies a virtuous simplicity, while being simultaneously revealing. The artist contrasts the sitter’s smooth, carefully modelled flesh with the elegant folds of the soft drapery and the too crisply silhouetted leaves. The overall effect is of careful poise, perhaps artifice. Girodet was among Jacques-Louis David’s most talented pupils – and the most wilful, striking out on his own path. His work is sensual and refined, even mannered.
Empress Josephine sat for Chinard in 1805 and over the following years, the sculptor made several versions of her portrait. After the French Revolution had overthrown the old monarchy and its symbols of power, Napoleon’s empire required a new art to express its ambitions, looking to artists such as Chinard to undertake this role. Josephine’s novel dress echoes that made for her coronation; its decoration – an eagle with a thunderbolt, stars and bees – comprises symbols of the new regime. On her tiara, figures of Fame hold Napoleon’s portrait. Equally important is how Chinard sensitively conveys Josephine’s individuality and rejects bland idealization; she is both Empress and her own self.
Prud’hon refined his idea for the composition through numerous drawings. The essential ideas are already in place in this early work.
The young hero is poised between a life of empty sensual pleasure and one of struggle and glory, represented by Love (the sleeping Venus) and Wisdom (Minerva). When Cupids attack Youth and only Wisdom’s shield defends him, we sense his desire and the difficulty of his choice. The idea of a man’s sacrifice to duty resonated in Napoleon’s empire, with its cult of military virtue and service to the state. Yet the work is also charged with the erotic, matching the taste of Meynier’s client Count Sommariva, the greatest private patron of the day.
Meynier was inspired by François Fénelon’s The Adventures of Telemachus, which tells the story of Ulysses’ son. First published in 1699 it championed public duty, moderation and self-discipline. Here Telemachus recounts a dream: Venus appears before him, but his attention is caught by her son Cupid, “… in his piercing eyes there was something that I could not behold without fear. He smiled as he looked at me, but it was a malicious smile, mocking and cruel. He selected from his golden quiver the keenest of his arrows and, having bent his bow, the shaft was just parting from the string when Minerva suddenly appeared and lifted her shield before me. …The arrow, unable to penetrate it, fell to the ground; and the god, shamed and indignant, sighed bitterly. ‘Away! reckless boy,’ said Minerva; ‘you have power only over the dishonorable, who prefer sordid pleasures to wisdom, virtue and glory.’”
In 1812, when Canova sent his first Dancer to Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon, it created a sensation. One critic wrote: “The novelty of both the concept and the figure’s action, the charm of life and the illusion of movement in this, the simplest of compositions, drew all of Paris, as if to a new play. I doubt that theatre’s most celebrated dancer has ever gathered such a crowd of admirers and received such applause.” Canova often carved multiple versions of his creations both to improve with each repetition and to meet the insatiable demand for his iconic works. This is a second version made for the English collector, Sir Simon Clarke.
Ariadne betrayed her father’s orders to help Theseus defeat the Minotaur, only to later be abandoned by the young hero on an island. Her gesture here draws attention to her former lover’s departing ship. She is later rescued by the god Bacchus, who falls in love with her. In Gros’ own words describing his painting, Ariadne is “gently persuaded and drawn away by Bacchus from the rocks she wets with tears.” The god will transform her into the Northern Crown, a constellation – evoked by the starred coronet she holds. Gros, Jacques-Louis David’s favourite pupil, created this composition at the request of his former master. He painted two versions of it: the first served as a pair to a work by David; this second was displayed publicly to assert the “correct” style of grand painting at a time of artistic change.
At the core of this work is a shallow, two-handled cup made during the early Roman Empire. Vessels carved from rare stones were prized in antiquity, and this is an exceptional example. The cup was preserved over the millennia and adapted for various uses. In the early 19th century, the addition of gilded metalwork transformed it into an oil lamp, inspired by ancient examples. The kneeling figure is the mortal Psyche; she had angered the goddess Venus, who set her near-impossible tasks. Here, Psyche attempts to collect the black water of the source of the Styx and Cocytus, the rivers of the Underworld, represented by the dark, richly coloured agate of the cup.