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In this unit we will examine a range of Napoleonic imagery by David, Gros and a number...
In this unit we will examine a range of Napoleonic imagery by David, Gros and a number of other artists, beginning with comparatively simple single-figure portraits and moving on to elaborate narrative compositions such as Jaffa and Eylau. In so doing, we will have three main aims: to develop your skills of visual analysis, to examine the relationship between art and politics and to introduce you to some of the complex issues involved in interpreting works of art.
By the end of your work on this unit you should be able to:
- analyse paintings centred on the human figure in terms of how a work's form and content together produce its meaning;
- explain how and why French painting came to be used and controlled by the Napoleonic regime;
- discuss the problems of interpretation raised by Gros's Napoleonic paintings;
- locate Napoleonic painting within the broad shift from Neoclassicism to Romanticism in French art.
- Current section: Introduction
- Learning outcomes
- 1 Paintings at the Louvre
- 2 The portrait of Napoleon
- 3 Gros and the Napoleonic propaganda machine
- 4 The Decennial Competition of 1810
- 5 Conclusion
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If you visit the Louvre museum in Paris and choose the route leading to the Denon wing, you will find on the first floor two vast galleries, the Daru room and the Mollien room, devoted to late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century French painting. Although they also contain many comparatively small works, notably portraits, these galleries are dominated by colossal pictures depicting historical and mythological subjects. Many of the images that we will be discussing in this unit belong to this genre. At the time, ‘history painting’ (as it is generally known) constituted by far the most prestigious genre of painting for two principal reasons. First, it was considered to be far more demanding than the so-called lower genres (portraiture, landscape, still life, etc.): not only did the history painter have to work out a large-scale composition involving the human figure, but he was also expected to represent nature in its ideal forms rather than merely copying the familiar appearance of things, like artists who practised the lower genres. (The masculine pronoun is deliberate. It was extremely difficult for women to become history painters. Female students were not admitted to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. The core of its tuition was the life class, which involved drawing from the naked (male) model, so women were excluded on grounds of modesty.)
Second, the subject matter of history paintings was considered to be much more significant than that of the lower genres, on account both of the exalted status of the gods and heroes who were depicted in them and of the elevating moral messages that they offered to the viewer. At least, this was the theory; the practice was often rather different, as we will see from considering examples produced during the Napoleonic era. This was increasingly to be the case as the nineteenth century progressed.
This unit is an adapted extract from the Open University course
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Originally published: Tuesday, 21st June 2011
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