Expressive and refined: study for 'A Flood Scene' by Anne-Louis Girodet
The career of the French painter Anne-Louis Girodet (1767–1824) was launched in 1789, when the artist won the prestigious Prix de Rome, awarded by the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, for his painting Joseph recognized by his brothers (Paris, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Art). During his Italian sojourn from 1790 to 1795, he drew extensively from the Antique and made several landscape paintings. It was while in Italy, that in 1791 he produced The Sleep of Endymion, which established his reputation when it was shown at the Salon of 1793. A student of the great French master Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), who until then considered him to be his most talented and promising follower, the young Girodet soon adopted a pre-Romantic approach, turning his back on his neoclassical training.
Upon his return to Paris, despite being already known for his portraits, he preferred more elaborate subjects and avoided commissions whenever possible. Striving constantly for originality, he created a vast canvas titled A Flood Scene, a depiction of a flood rather than the biblical Flood. Striking both in terms of its monumental scale and its dramatic and terrifying image, the work caused a sensation at the Salon of 1806: “Today, at the opening of the Salon, all eyes were drawn to a scene of the Flood [sic] by Girodet. This fine composition was widely admired,” wrote one critic in the Gazette de France, while the Journal de l'Empire confirmed: “We were waiting with something like impatience for Mr. Girodet to produce a work that would leave the harshest connoisseurs in no doubt as to the assurance and supremacy of his talent.”
Measuring 441 × 341 cm, the monumental painting was exhibited again at the Salon of 1814 and then purchased by the king's household in 1818 for the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. After Girodet's death, the work was transferred to the Louvre, along with its predecessor The Sleep of Endymion and its successor The Entombment of Atala (1808).
A preparatory drawing for A Flood Scene, recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, is a key study for Girodet's masterpiece. The drawing, as well as a number of other sheets and painted sketches (some located, others documented) allow us to trace the development of the painting.
Evidence that Girodet was already interested in the subject in 1789 is provided by a sketchbook, now in Montargis, which includes a graphite drawing by the artist of The Flood painted that year by Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754–1829). Six years later, in 1795 in Genoa he began laying down his own ideas in two Italian sketchbooks for a work on the theme, making no reference to the biblical narrative. The acquired study can likely be placed somewhere between the copy after Regnault and these two original images, for despite its more finished quality it was undoubtedly a primo pensiero (an initial idea), more neoclassical and less romantic in style than the later ones, in which the composition was gradually transformed.
Although the artist would produce numerous figural studies, this recently rediscovered drawing is one of only three compositional sketches for the Louvre painting, which Girodet ultimately executed between 1802 and 1806. Still horizontal rather than vertical, this early version does not comprise the tree nor the older child clinging to his mother’s neck in the painting. Instead, a dog accompanies the group and the drapery effects are less dramatic. The drawing is an excellent example of the classical style employed by the artist who is better known as a pioneer of Romanticism, it is also the only preparatory sketch for A Flood Scene outside France—all others belong to French public institutions.
The collection of the National Gallery of Canada includes three works by Girodet: the oil portrait of Madame Erneste Bioche de Misery and two drawings. One is a sparely drawn, neoclassical illustration of Juno and Venus, made for a contemporary edition of Virgil’s Aeneid. Not unlike the newly-acquired study, the latter is a preparatory sketch for another celebrated painting by Girodet now in the Louvre, The Entombment of Atala mentioned earlier.
Like the Study for "A Flood Scene", the two preparatory sketches (one in ink, the other in black chalk) for landmark works by Girodet, that have been kept at the Louvre since the artist’s death, are significant not only for their powerful aesthetics but also for how they document the evolution of complex and ingenious compositions.
Consult the works by Anne-Louis Girodet in the online collection of the National Gallery of Canada. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.