"Les Ombres des Héros français" - The painter Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson's emergence into the Romantic era

5 January 1767, the French late Classicist and early Romantic painter and draughtsman Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson was born in picturesque Montargis in the Loiret.

Anne-Louis Girodet:"The Funeral of Atala”, inspired by François-René de Chateaubriand’s novella "Atala, ou Les Amours de deux sauvages dans le desert" (1808)

“Romantic poetry is a progressive universal poetry. Its destiny is not merely to reunite all of the different genres and to put poetry in touch with philosophy and rhetoric. Romantic poetry wants to and should combine and fuse poetry and prose, genius and criticism, art poetry and nature poetry. It should make poetry lively and sociable, and make life and society poetic. It should poeticize wit and fill all of art's forms with sound material of every kind to form the human soul, to animate it with flights of humor. Romantic poetry embraces everything that is purely poetic, from the greatest art systems, which contain within them still more systems, all the way down to the sigh, the kiss that a poeticizing child breathes out in an artless song. Romantic poetry can lose itself in what is represented to the extent that one might believe that it exists solely to characterize poetic individuals of all types. But there is not yet a form which is fit to fully express an author's spirit. Thus many artists who only wanted to write a novel ended up presenting a kind of self-portrait. It alone is able to become a mirror of the entire surrounding world, an image of their age in the same manner as an epic. And yet it is Romantic poetry which can best glide between the portrayer and what is portrayed, free from all real and ideal interests. On the wings of poetic reflection, it can raise that reflection to a higher power and multiply it in an endless row of mirrors. Romantic poetry is capable of the highest and most comprehensive refinement– not merely from the inside out, but also from the outside in. In everything that should be a whole among its products, it organizes all parts similarly, through which a vision of an infinitely expanding classicism is opened. Romantic poetry is to the arts what wit is to philosophy and what society, company, friendship, and love are in life. Other kinds of poetry are finished and can now be fully analyzed. The Romantic form of poetry is still in the process of becoming. Indeed, that is its true essence, that it is always in the process of becoming and can never be completed. It cannot be exhausted by any theory, and only a divinatory criticism would dare to want to characterize its ideal. Romantic poetry alone is infinite, just as it alone is free and recognizes as its first law that the poetic will submits itself to no other law. The Romantic kind of poetry is the only one which is more than a kind – it is poetry itself. For, in a certain sense, all poetry is or should be Romantic.“ (Friedrich Karl Wilhelm von Schlegel, “Athenaeum Fragment #116”, 1798)

Anne-Louis Girodet: "Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of French Heroes", together with an Imperial eagle that has obviously flown from his standard into Elysium (1802)

Storm clouds gathered in Europe by the end of the 18th century. Not only over the fields and the streets of the cities. With the American Revolution across the sea, one could almost feel the last effects of the Middle Ages drawing to an end and the storm coming up in the very souls of intellectuals, revolutionaries and artists, clouding over the Age of Enlightenment’s reason and prudence. Sturm und Drang, the Germans called it, storm and urge, young Werther suffered, Moor and his Robbers rebelled and the dawn of Romanticism outshone the noble simplicity and calm grandeur of the Ancients that Winckelmann believed to have discovered two generations before, the aesthetic sine qua non of Classicism, in the visual arts. And while German philosophers might have outlined the intellectual superstructure of the Romantic Movement and German poets voiced her first words, English artists visualised them in properly dramatic landscapes and soon painters across Europe populated them with suitably dramatic or sentimental scenes à la Rousseau, who had added the metaphysics of nature to the emotive brewage. And while the good people of Paris glared at Versailles and the Tuileries Palace, began to whet the bayonets, rehearsed dancing the Carmagnole and thought “Ah! ça ira“, a highly gifted young man came to Paris to study painting in the studio of one of France’s greatest Classicist artists, that of Jacques-Louis David. The young man with the somewhat unwieldy name of Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson promptly thrived on the competitive atmosphere in David’s sacred halls where revenge, by all means, had its place, in the depiction of ancient myths, like the famous “Oath of the Horatii“ for example, masterfully copied and enhanced by young Girodet-Trioson in 1786. Three years later, on the very eve of the Revolution, Girodet won a gold medal and the Prix de Rome, only just awarded by the future Citoyen Capet for his “Joseph Recognized by his Brothers“, still a quite Classicist and rather unremarkable work. But then, the monarchy tumbled, Girodet decided to postpone the study tour to the French Academy in Rome to stay in Paris and participate in the inspiringly world-shaking events.

Allegedly, Napoleon himself ordered the paining of "Malvine, Dying in the Arms of Fingal" from the Ossian cycle (around 1801)

Girodet finally went to Rome, though, in 1790 and the six weeks he planned to stay at the Academy became five years. Driven out of the Eternal City by an angry mob in 1793 when the Academy was stormed, he roved through Italy with a friend, sometimes in the wake of the campaigning French armies, sometimes away from the maddening crowds, studied the old masters’ drama, was struck down by a bout of syphilis in Naples and finally returned back home to France in 1795. He might have skipped the Reign of Terror but was in time to witness the decreed end of the Revolution on the 18 Brumaire and the ascendancy of Napoleon. Girodet became an ardent admire, painted battle scenes, adulations and portraits of the soon-to-be Imperial family and became a rival of his former master David. The student seemed to have jettisoned his master’s teachings and arrived, Romantically moved, at new shores. Instead of David’s cool, classic visual narrative, a new design vocabulary told dramatic tales, with forms extrapolated in the chiaroscuro, the bold contrasts of light and dark of Baroque art, suitably charged with classic and contemporary symbols, myths of antiquity, fakes like the immensely popular Ossian cycle of poems and novels by Chateaubriand. Nevertheless, Girodet retained a few of the mannerisms he learned at the feet of David and both masters were caught up in the national hangover when the Bourbon king returned after the fall of Napoleon’s First Empire in 1815. While David was forced to flee the country as the former ardent promoter of the Revolution, Girodet was, more or less, forgiven, but he didn’t paint much anymore. With the financial security of a rich inheritance at his back he withdrew from public life, did a few illustrations and died, exhausted and syphilitic, at the age of 57, a year before David, as one of the trailblazers of the Romantic Movement.

Trailblazer of the Romantic Movement: Anne-Louis Girodet, self portrait, dated 1824

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