Anne-Louis Girodet worked within two eras of art: the Neoclassical movement and the Romantic movement. What remained consistent throughout his career was his love of the sensual, mysterious, and eventually sublime. He was one of the biggest advocates for the Romantic movement but that is not where he began. Girodet was a rebel within the Neoclassic realm and was able to make his work into something unique and inspired many painters who learned beside him and came after.
The French Artist – Girodet
Girodet was born in 1767 in Montargis, France to a family whose lives ended in tragedy. During his younger years, he studied architecture and even dipped his toe into a military career track. That was before he finally went to the School of David to reap an education in painting in the 1780s. His early works inherited the Neoclassical style, yet being under the tutelage of David allowed for him to flourish in Romanticism as well due to Jacques-Louis David’s influence on the Romantic art movement. Girodet became one of several advocates of the Romantic movement and can be viewed as one of the first artists of the said movement.
What is Romanticism?
The Romantic art movement succeeded the Neoclassical art movement, with students of the great Jacques-Louis David carrying the movement to the forefront of the arts during the time. The Romantic movement focused on the idea of the Sublime: the beautiful yet terrifying, the duality of nature and man. Artists of the movement began molding the Neo-Classical arts into something more raw and extreme. Romanticism had a strong focus on nature, as it epitomizes the beauteous yet horrifying nature of the world around us.
Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa is a key work of the Romantic art movement and is one of the reasons why nature became one of its focal points. Not only that, the painting itself was out of the ordinary for the time because it was a prodigious work based on a current event. The piece brought the topic of nepotism and its inherent issues to the forefront of higher social regard.
During the Romantic movement, Orientalism came. It began due to the Napoleonic French occupation in Egypt and the descriptions that were being produced for the public of life in the middle east. Not only was there a fascination with the cultures of the Orient, but it was also used as propaganda. For example, take Antoine-Jean Gros’ Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa. However, Napoleon was never actually at Jaffa, he was otherwise engaged elsewhere.
Orientalism was eventually used by artists like Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and others to make artworks that critiqued the society, foreign leaders, and politicians (instead of creating works to justify Napoleon’s actions and reign). It further transformed Romanticism into a movement that truly exemplified the beauty of man and nature, but also the horrifying actions of man and the abilities of the world around us.
The School of David and its Influence
Jacques-Louis David was arrested after he had a hand in the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, as he voted in favor of their deaths. After he was finally released, he dedicated his time to teaching the next generations of artists. These include Girodet, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, François Gérard, Antoine-Jean Gros, and others. He taught them the ways of the old masters through a Neoclassical lens and opened up a door to Romanticism for many of them.
The Sleep of Endymion is an example of how David influenced his students. His teaching helped to shape a new era of Neoclassicists and future Romanticists. In The Sleep of Endymion, Girodet portrays the tale of the Aeolian Shepard, Endymion, who loved the moon. There have even been tales of him being the first astronomer to see the movement of the moon. This is why he fell in love with the moon or the moon goddess.
Eros hints at his love for the moon as he watches Endymion cheerfully being covered by moonlight with an erotic glow. The moon puts Endymion into an eternal sleep so that he becomes frozen in time and the moon can look upon him forever.
What made this painting so different from David’s was Girodet’s paintings’ underlying erotic nature, more dynamic perspectives, and effeminate male forms. The androgynous form has been painted many times over in the history of art but its resurgence during the Neoclassical art movement was an act of disobedience from David’s students. They got tired of the heroic male nude that David so highly praised.
David’s works were dignified and focused on serious themes, while Girodet flirted with sensuality and created tantalizing, mysterious works.
Girodet’s Development: From Neoclassicism to the Romantic Movement
Girodet’s development from a Neoclassicist to a Romanticist was actually extremely subtle. His appeal for the sensuous yet serious and the sublime can be seen during the early years of his artistic career. Girodet’s Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley was politically and socially charged, yet it came off as something flirtatious and elegiac. Girodet was already conveying duality within his works. The above drawing was done early in his career before the finished painted product was hung in the Salon in 1797.
The piece is Neoclassical, yet feels Romantic, which obviously has something to do with the dual teachings of David. Belley, a Haitian revolutionary, maintains the regality expected from Neoclassical painting, whilst looking mournful because of the late abolitionist Guillaume-Thomas Raynal. He is shown in the painting in the form of a bust in the background. Belley poses in an “…almost sultry lean that appears in other paintings by Girodet and may have been a favorite pose of his.”
Many have argued that this could have been an allusion to his own homosexuality and his appreciation of the male form as more than the historical “ideal.” Furthermore, Girodet, like Théodore Géricault, painted this work of his own volition, finding that the message and its exposure was important— a very Romantic way of thinking. Considering Girodet is one of the champions of the Romantic movement this is no surprise.
Just a year after his Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley, came his Mademoiselle Lange as Venus. The painting feels Neoclassical, yet it is alluding back to the mysterious and erotic style used in his Sleep of Endymion. Even though it seems like the antithesis of the previous portrait, that is not true. It all comes down to how the artist treated his subjects. He paints both as beacons of sensuality but also he shows a story.
Style-wise the paintings differ, yet they are similar in how they carry the spirit of Romanticism with a dual nature present in both works. The pieces are bursting with sublimity, beauty, and context.
Mademoiselle Lange as Danaë was a direct rebuttal to Mademoiselle Lange’s distaste for the original commission shown above. Its meaning is scathing, conveying his distaste for Mademoiselle Lange whilst laying her attributes bare. It is like the previous paintings which show a fine line between Neoclassical and Romantic. However, this painting surely leans more towards the Romantic side due to its critiques of the subject which are not found in the works of the Neoclassical era.
The Neoclassical part however is seen in focusing on Greek and Roman figures and myths. The style shown in the painting also flirts with the softness and frivolity of Rococo, which appeared in early Neoclassical works. Although still maintaining the dignity typically associated with images of historical figures. Most of the works that came after this piece, other than his bust portraitures, lean towards the Romantic movement.
The Entombment of Atala: A Culmination of the Romantic Movement
The Entombment of Atala is up there as one of Girodet’s most well-known pieces. It was based on François-Auguste-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand’s French Romantic novel Atala which came out in 1801. It is a tale of a woman who is unable to balance her religious duty to remain a virgin while being in love with Atala.
It is a tale of the “noble savage” and the effect of Christianity on the indigenous population of the New World. Christianity was being brought back to France in which Atala actually played a part in. The piece is inherently Romantic due to its sublime nature. The girl chose god and did not break her vow, however she had to die and lose the one that she loved in the process. It is evident that Girodet had a grasp on what made a painting Romantic.
A Tale of Two Scenes by Girodet
There are two examples that exemplify Girodet’s space in the Romantic era and how that change came about. I have shown some of the more subtle changes in his work. He was one of the first artists to make Romanticism into what it eventually became. His work The Spirits of French Heroes Welcomed by Ossian into Odin’s Paradise is a political allegory, it was meant to gain favor from Napoleon and also function as a piece based on hubris. The overarching atmosphere of the piece is Romantic.
The work is considered one of the precursors to the Romantic movement, as it was just beginning in the early 1800s. In fact, this is a Neoclassical painting, but it is also Romantic. The only thing keeping this painting from being fully Romantic is the use of Ossianic mythology with the combination of recent French history. It can be said that it is the first Romantic piece that Girodet painted.
The Revolt of Cairo was Girodet’s first work in which he intentionally worked with the sublime. Additionally, it was one of the pieces that brought Orientalism to the Romantic movement. This later inspired artists like Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault. His work on this painting was long and tedious as it was exploratory in nature. It was commissioned by Napoleon himself. The painting depicts the subjugation of rioting Egyptian, Mameluke, and Turkish soldiers by Napoleon’s soldiers. There are no Neoclassical tones in sight and there is no comparison to the astute and serious works of David. In all of its chaos and movement, it could be compared to The Death of Sardanapalus or Eugène Delacroix’s Scenes from the Massacre at Chios.
By the end of Girodet’s career, he had perfected what it meant to paint something Romantic, meaningful, and impactful.