Rebel Without a Cause

John Haber
in New York City

Anne-Louis Girodet

How do you rescue an unfamiliar artist from an unfamiliar time? Make him as controversial as art today.

Actually, that strategy can take two forms, and Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson gets the benefit of both. The Met calls its retrospective "Girodet: Romantic Rebel," positioning him firmly in the avant-garde. Critics have leaned toward a still more contemporary model. In his outrageous meditations on religion, sex, and death, they have seen something of shock art from the last decade.

The choice of rebellion—modern or postmodern—says a lot about contemporary art and its dilemmas. So does Girodet's failure to conform so easily to either one. Like many a rebel now, he would have loved the attention, especially if it helped sell paintings. Girodet's Sleeping Endymion (Louvre, 1791)

The Met struggles to fill its principal exhibition space for European art, as if some had already sold. The rooms seem far too large for the retrospective or, for that matter, the artist. They include replicas of major work, albeit by Girodet's own hand, on loan from small French museums. Yet in his early brilliance and his fitful acts of rebellion, he helps chart the early nineteenth century and the birth of Romanticism, with perhaps a lesson or two for rebels today.

Sex and death

By unfamiliar, I mean merely out of the public eye. Girodet may not merit a chapter in typical histories, much like a contemporary in Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, but he must seem ripe for rediscovery. Art history has been wrestling with kitsch and the canon for years. Anita Brookner places his Death of Atala on the cover of Romanticism and Its Discontents. She takes Girodet as a prototype for the Romantic artist before his time.

He did not do badly in his own time either. Born in 1767, he quickly earned a Prix de Rome and a place with Jacques-Louis David, the architect of Neoclassicism. The Met gives him most of the credit for a workshop copy of David's Death of the Horatii. A meticulous self-portrait drawing from 1790 shows a prodigy. It also shows the dashing pose of les primitifs, an emerging circle promising to take art back to nature. Girodet's long hair still connotes youth, rebellion, and having a good time.

Girodet valued all of these. He insisted that one not take him for an imitator of David, and David returned the favor by discounting a painting as a study in decorative crystal. When a patron found her portrait demeaning, Girodet tore it up and sent her the pieces. He mocked the Academy as a "royal sheepfold with place for a dozen bellwethers." A postmodern critic would probably detect a castration complex.

Atala made a sensation at the Salon of 1808. It does so even today. A monk and virile young man mourn a beautiful woman's death. The composition reflects traditional depictions of Jesus's entombment. However, the man's bare chest, the woman's sheer, flowing garment, and the posture of a reclining nude convey quite a sexual charge. Brookner calls the result "coldly voluptuous."

The intimations of mortality, the cave's open mouth, a strong evening light, and the cross on a distant hill could all belong to Caspar David Friedrich. So could the association of a longing for immortality with sex and death. Throw in a little gender ambiguity and a lot of willingness to please, and you have a paradigm for the latest Whitney Biennial. Even Girodet's first name, Anne-Louis, may sound to contemporary American ears like cross dressing.

One can almost call his Sleeping Endymion, painted in 1791, a bisexual epic. Hovering at the left, Diana has the more masculine features, the vitality of a hunter goddess, and a lascivious grin. Her prey lies asleep, in the traditional pose of a female nude, an intense light caressing his stomach and thighs. A small, round patch of sky, surrounded by thick foliage, further associates his ravishment with that of a woman, and it transposes day into night. Girodet, then twenty-four, never reached such transgressive heights again.

No virtue unrewarded

Those heights repay a visit. However, claiming Girodet for the twenty-first century leaves out far too much—about French art and about him. Perhaps Rudy Giuliani has too much on his mind as 2008 approaches, but do not look for his denunciation of the Met any time soon. I went expecting an early Matthew Barney, and my kitsch meter never swung quite so far.

In a classic of art history, Walter Friedlaender calls Girodet vacillating. More fairly, one might say that he sought too hard to keep up with the latest trends, even when that left him unsure whether he was impressing others or only himself. He may count as a rebel or a thrill seeker, but he never does leave the mainstream. Art movements had begun, and art personalities competed for attention, but the avant-garde lay in the future.

For one thing, Girodet did not do all that badly, especially given his death in 1824 and the violent turns in French politics. He had a brief exile in America, and his work slowed almost to a halt after 1813. Still, he could boast of early success and continuing influence. He also spared no pains to cater to political trends. One portrait describes a freed slave as ever so politically correct for republican times, if not for today—at once noble Jacobin, noble soldier, and noble savage. A few years later, Girodet presses the emperor himself for a series of commissions, and a full-dress portrait shows exactly what he intends.

Bearing an orb, cross, and staff topped with an eagle, Napoleon wears a laurel wreath and luxurious robe. Behind him, curtains parts to reveal classical pillars. On the table before him, the Napoleonic code has pride of place. The great man embodies every conceivable Roman virtue, from democracy to Christianity to empire. With Girodet's typically flawless timing, Napoleon's abdication cut short the project. Not only enemies of world domination will have breathed a sigh of relief.

Throughout, the painter has an eye for traditional virtues, even if those virtues had a way of shifting with the political winds—and even when virtues collide in a kind of erotic triangle. As with Atala, he borrows compositions from religious art. He illustrates such classical stalwarts as Racine and Virgil. His portraits stick to stereotype, including the sweet maiden and the father as teacher. His prophets embrace martyrdom, and his Hippocrates refuses pleas for help and buckets of cash from the nation's enemies. Never mind that a doctor who denied treatment today would lose his license.

Endymion may or may not look gay, but the artist repeatedly trumpets male virtues and adopts the privileged vantage point of male desire. The portrait that outraged its sitter shows her as Danaë, whom Zeus raped as a shower of coins. His sitter, an actress marrying up to a banker, did not overlook the allegory. Yet she comes very close to Girodet's independent version of the same mythological theme. Cherubs spread a cloth dripping with coins above Danaë, in a ritual of at once veiling and penetration. A rooster supplies the proper male cackle.

Ultra and anti

Romanticism did not start or stop suddenly. Rather, as with most dramatic changes, it bundled past ideals into a radically new package. That meant allowing old contradictions to show, and it required changes in style to match. It kept the eighteenth-century theater and confrontations between nature and culture that would have made sense even to George Stubbs, but increasingly the artist and viewer take center stage along with the painted actors. The confrontations of Edouard Manet and the avant-garde really do lie directly ahead.

Girodet makes a terrific case study, and not just in marketing for the Met, which earlier promoted Théodore Chassériau as "the unknown romantic." He certainly starts a student of the Revolution. His name sounds straight out of the aristocracy, but Trioson and the hyphen actually arise from his adoptive stepfather. He remains within David's figure-driven compositions. He keeps visible brushwork to his sketches, and his range of color stays narrow, pale, and flat.

At the same time, he quickly loses interest in David's linear style. Only the portraits sustain a Neoclassical ideal, with clear drawing and Girodet's most vibrant color. His narratives ditch the clarity and symmetry of the Horatii. Bodies grow boneless, cramped, and confused, and often the central figure falls within shadow. That can allow a lighter touch than David's and an unsettling reversal of passive hero and active bystander. It can also produce the worst of both worlds—a superficial muddiness without Romanticism's triumph of color, motion, and emotional complexity.

He also quickly develops an interest in Romantic themes, including Celtic poetry and the horrors of war. Portraits from the Middle East reflect a newly fashionable orientalism—the anonymous sitters in beard and turban as emblems of the exotic. Girodet attains Endymion's light through dreamy Italian landscapes. Later works shift to a still-colder finish and cartoon colors, like those of an odalisque posing before a foamy, pink curtain. His last major painting, Pygmalion, has a syrupy yellow light that Hallmark would cherish. Given his dual obsessions with sex and death, it makes sense that Pygmalion, a sculptor, brings his object of desire to life, only for the real artist to die young.

Even in risk and rebellion, Girodet fits comfortably into his time. Those David influenced right down to J. A. D. Ingres have earned the name Ultra-Classicists, for carrying the master's firm line and grandiose stage sets to preposterous extremes. Yet, as Friedlaender pointed out half a century ago, they also count as anti-Classicists—even or perhaps especially when they exaggerate the style. David's sculptural ideal remains, but with a hint of porcelain rather than clay. I think of a similar finish and similar struggle with the recent past when Bronzino carried Renaissance portraiture into Mannerism.

Girodet's eroticism may seem rebellious, but it, too, points back to David's reclining Madame Recamier—or still further back, to François Boucher and the Rococo. So does a didacticism in which desire must fall pray to death. René Magritte did not have far to go when he replaced Recamier with a coffin. Had Girodet survived his fifties, perhaps he could, like Théodore Géricault, have pushed the transition to Romanticism much further. Instead, he remains caught in the contradictions and conservatism of his time and his aspirations. I guess he resembles Barney and contemporary art more than I have let on.

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"Girodet: Romantic Rebel" ran through August 27, 2006, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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