Monday, March 30, 2009

Roman Decadence

Nearly all western nations regarded themselves as heirs of the Roman Emire. Above all occidental art had its roots in Renaissance and therefore in Roman culture or in that what was taken for it. It was Roman civilasation where all European nations searched their patterns. In neoclassicism they tried to copy the architecture, political structures, livestyle and art. Shure that this where in many cases only imaginations, but Rome seemed to be the forefather of all.

But when most where satisfied to compare their modern empires with that of Rome, some started to think about decadence. The book of Edward Gibbon "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" became famous. And with the time people were less interested in the grandeur of the Roman Empire but in its decadence. Roman decadence became synonymical to Social criticism.

An appropriate expression of this accomplished the French artist Thomas Couture (1815-1879) with his painting "The Romans during the Decadence" (1847). Couture wanted to criticize his own contemporary french society. So he explained his painting with a quotation from the Roman poet Juvenal: "Crueller than war, vice fell upon Rome and avenged the conquered world".

Friday, March 27, 2009

More Light Effects

Almost a standard light effect was to illuminate the hero from the back. With the sun behind he appeared with an aureola, illuminated by the divine light.
Although this pose was proved in thousands of religious paintings it pretended now to be natural.

Here the French battle painter Horace Emile Jean Vernet (1789-1863) shows Napoleon as the victor of Friedland (1807) with a divine aureola.

Totally different (in its intentions not its methods) is this painting from the German Adolf Northen (1828-76): Napoleon's retreat from Moscow (1851)
The light comes from the upper right illuminates Napoleon from the back, passes and focuses on the dead soldier on the ground. The light effect is further intensified by the fact that Napoleons's horse and the dead soldier are white.

Napoleon is leading his troops into death. He's the rider on the pale horse from the Apocalypse whose name was Death.

All these effects are well planned and arranged. Even though the paintings are realistic in many details they are pure constructions as a whole.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

God's own light show

One of the most important tricks with which history painters dramatized their art was the use of light effects. If you look at these paintings you should always think a little about illumination. Where does the light come from? Could it be real? Or is there somewhere a big floodlight hidden?

This painting is by Karl Pavlovich Briullov (1799-1852) the most important Russian romantic painter. Its from 1843 and shows "The Siege of Pskov" by the Polish king Stefan Batory.
The Poles are driven away by a heroic sortie.
The light doesn't even come from somewhere in the sky. Its source lies in the group of white priests an their holy relics.

This painting from the same year ist by the Polish painter January Suchodolski (1797-1875) and shows that God wasn't only on the Russian side.
Suchodolski painted the heroic defense of a monastery in Czestochowa where the famous Black Madonna was guarded. The light came from inside - it seems the white priest switched it on - and is nearly blinding the Swedes and their German mercenaries.

But before you smile about these cheap 19th century tricks, have a look at this:

Here they learned from history painting. Its Hollywood where the tradition now is kept alive.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Banal Death

How exaggerated the death poses where, shows the painting "Dead Soldiers" (1866) by Adolf von Menzel.

Menzel (1815-1905) was one of the most important German realist painters of the 19th century. He became famous with his history paintings dealing with the life and deeds of Frederick the Great.
As an official artist Menzel accompanied 1866 the prussian troops in the war against Austria. By this occasion he saw for the first time dead soldiers. He was horrorized und wrote later of his "naive imprudence" while painting battle paintings.
He never more painted any battles.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Dramatic Death Poses

To show that the dying vikings in their pose are nothing special here only a few of the innumerable dramatic-death-pose-paintings.

The first is by Benjamin West (1738–1820) an American, wo lived permanently in England from 1763.
The Death of Wolfe (1770) is neoclassical and was a forerunner in its time and maybe one of the first of this type.

The second by Bertalan Székely (1835-1910) an Hungarian painter.
Its called "The Death of Thököly" (1873) and is already pure Romanticism. Nevertheless the pose remains the same.

The last is by Uroš Predić (1857-1953) one of the most famous Serbian painters. The style may be subsumed under Realism, but this makes little difference.
The painting became famous in the recent wars in Yugoslavia.

No doubt that these paintings are great. But at last stuff like this was one of the causes for the decline of history painting. When people didn't believe any more in this exaggerated gestures they blamed the paintings to be untrue and constructed, what they always have been, but now it seemed to be fraud.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Viking Death

Parting from Orvar Odd (1866)
A painting by Swedish painter Mårten Eskil Winge (1825-1896)

Hervors Death by the Norwegian painter Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-1892) shows the death of a valkyrie or shieldmaiden.

Both paintings are very similar in their gesture and their colours. They depict the moment of the "famous last words". And with this theme they are similar to a lot of others.
Every nation had its own dying heroes. But nevertheless they pretended to be so unique national, today they seem so similar.
Its the all european romantic hero-death-kitsch.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Viking Funerals

With romanticism and nationalsim european artists (and art buyers) turned their interest from a classical (means roman or greek) past to something, what they thought may have been their own history.
Looking for something, what could be considered an own "national"cult, they discovered the viking funeral. Although it was not really common in the older days, it was very popular in the 19th century.

Here two examples. The first is by the scottish painter Robert Gibb (1845-1932).
It may be the naive version of the story. Its idyllic and the people are mourning peaceully.

Totally different is the painting by the polish/russian painterHenryk Hector Siemiradzki (1843-1902).
He shows the burial of a varangian chief of the Kievan Rus, who was killed collecting tribute.
Its a dark barbaric feast with human sacrifices.
There could be no doubt that the painting was strong influenced by "The Death of Sardanapal"(1827) by Eugène Delacroix.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Viking Raids

The interest for their barbarian past awakend relatively late in the europeans. First artists were interested in greeks and romans. And when they painted barbarians, they painted them like romans in costumes.
But at the end of the 19th century there were a raising interest in nordic and celtic warriors.
Here two examples.
The first is by the british painter Edward Matthew Hale (1852-1924) and is called "After the Raid" (1892). It shows viking raiders with their human booty.
The second is by the french painterEvariste Vital Luminais (1821-1896) and is called "Norman Pirates" (1897). The subject is similar.

Shure that the vikings were interested in beautiful women and rape was a common practice. But we dont think that the booty were always naked. This is without question a concession to the art market of the 19th century (more about nude-painting in that time).
The naked booty is for the art-buyer not for the viking!!

Saturday, March 7, 2009


"Storming the Battlements" a scene from the wars under the The Duke of Marlborough.
Painting by the english painter Robert Alexander Hillingford (1825-1904), who specialised in battle paintings.