Saturday, December 9, 2017

Priestess of Bacchus (1894)

William Bouguereau: Priestess of Bacchus

Painted in 1894, Prêtresse de Bacchus is a tremendous example of Bouguereau’s virtuosic skill that had brought him such enormous commercial success by this point while anticipating his later compositions. In contrast to his earlier works that illustrate Classical themes, such as La jeunesse de Bacchus (1884) or Nymphes et Satyre (1873) – paintings that intended to convey a particular narrative – Prêtresse de Bacchus features a single model and belongs to a series the artist referred to as “fantasy paintings.” In the present work, Bouguereau isolates his subject within a vast landscape and, without any contextual framework beyond her costume, she becomes representative of a lost, ancient ideal.

The Priestess of Bacchus herself belongs to the iconographic tradition of Maenads, or Bacchantes; mythological women who were popular subjects with nineteenth century artists who favored them for their intrinsic eroticism and ecstatic youthfulness. Although her calm demeanor differs greatly from the usual ferocity of the lascivious Bacchantes, she is clearly identified as a Dionysian devotee by two unmistakable symbols: the ivy wreath she wears on her head, a reminder of her connection to wine and revelry; and the thyrsus she holds in her right hand, a pinecone topped staff originating in Attic vase painting as a symbol of Bacchus and present in several of Bouguereau’s other depictions of Bacchantes.

Bouguereau both acknowledges and modifies his Classical source, presenting this priestess simply as an enduring object of aesthetic contemplation.  The model for this work, an Italian girl who frequently posed for Bouguereau between 1894 and 1895, posed for several such “fantasies” including a companion painting to the present lot of a seated Bacchante (1894), as well as Souvenir  (1894), and Le secret (1894). In his choice of a model with recognizably Italian features, as well as in the work’s mise-en-scene against a cool-colored landscape, Bouguereau draws a comparison between these fantasies of an ideal antiquity and the contemporary Italian peasant women that form so much of his painted oeuvre, implying an unbroken continuum of idealized women from antiquity to his own time.

In depicting this young woman devoid of all other narrative context, Bouguereau guides the viewer’s focus to the figure’s delicate features and remarkable physiognomy; from her elongated neck, suggesting the influence of Bouguereau’s beloved Florentine Renaissance, and to her strong, contrapposto stance that evokes the autonomous beauty of Classical statuary.

This painting is especially noteworthy for its exemplary flesh-tones. Well-painted skin was considered both the greatest challenge and the most important painterly quality in much of nineteenth century Academic discourse. By depicting the priestess with her arm raised, he demonstrates the subtle play of color running down her arm, with hues of blue and purple paint overlaid by translucent layers of warmer tones. Indeed, the same principle of translucency that gives warmth to her skin informs the diaphanous handling of her drapery, which hints at the body beneath. [Sotheby’s]

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Portrait of Princess Zinaida Yusupova (1894)

François Flameng: Portrait of Princess Zinaida Yusupova 
with Two Sons at Arkhangelskoe

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Forge (1894)

Fernand Cormon: A Forge

This is an unusual work for Cormon who was known above all for his history painting and large decorative works such as those at the chateau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. In keeping with the movement towards naturalism and pacifism promoted by the Third Republic, in this painting he turned for inspiration to the industrial world of his time. It recalls the works of François Bonhommé (1809-1881) who had devoted the majority of his life to depicting the industrial worker and his work place.

The scene in this painting was certainly observed from life. We know, in fact, that Cormon made highly detailed studies from actual models for the gestures and expressions of his characters in order to make his scenes more true to life. However, the title, A Forge, as it appeared in the brochure of the 1894 Salon, does not specify a location, thus giving it a generic character.

A Forge presents a heroic view of industrialisation. Each stage of the ironworking process is represented through different groups of workers throughout the forge, which takes on the grandeur of a cathedral through the remarkable effect of the slanting rays of sunlight. The interplay of light and shade glorifies the heroism of the work, skillfully avoiding any reference to the noise, heat and harsh conditions of this murderous activity condemned by Zola. [Musée d'Orsay]