Neoclassical Nuttiness—or Why Art and Politics Don't Mix

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This week we're lucky to have guest blogger Elizabeth Lunday, author of Secret Lives of Great Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You about Master Painters and Sculptors, spilling the dirt on the artists you thought you knew. We'll let her take it from here:

BY ELIZABETH LUNDAY. The Neoclassical period coincided with the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, and the Napoleonic Wars. These were exciting times, and several artists found themselves drawn to politics like moths to a flame—only, not surprisingly, to get burned. Here are two examples of Neoclassical artists' unfortunate encounters with politics:

1. Life before Wite-Out: The Ridiculous Painting and Repainting and Repainting of History

aa.art.pngFrancisco Goya achieved the highest artistic status in Spain, painter to the king, just in time for the king to get deposed by Napoleon. A Spanish patriot, Goya had no love for Napoleon's replacement--his brother Joseph--but he also had a strong sense of self-preservation. So when he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Joseph, he arranged to paint it without ever actually meeting the man himself. He called his work The Allegory of Madrid and positioned a copy of an engraving of Joseph in a medallion alongside and a beatific maiden representing the Spanish capital.

In 1812, however, English forces routed Napoleon's army and Joseph Bonaparte fled, so Goya painted over the erstwhile king's portrait and replaced it with the word Constitución, in honor of the document that promised basic freedoms to Spaniards. Ah, but then Joseph came back, so Goya returned him to his oval—but not for long. Joseph left for good in 1813, and Goya had one of his assistants put Constitución back in. "¨"¨The story doesn't end there. As the political situation in Spain waxed and waned, the oval got painted over in 1814, 1843, and 1872, by which time Goya had been dead nearly 45 years. So much for art being immortal.

2. The Shifting Loyalties of Jacques Louis David

aa.art2.pngJacques Louis David was an aristocratic favorite in France when the Revolution ended the whole idea of aristocracy (at least for a while.) David became, in words of observers, "delirious" with revolutionary fervor. In 1792 he was elected to the National Convention, and in 1793 he voted for the death of Louis XVI. He put his artistic powers to revolutionary purposes, painting a series of works commemorating the deaths of republican martyrs such as his friend Jean-Paul Marat, and apparently didn't mind when the body count of the Reign of Terror reached nearly 40,000 lives.

When support for the Terror's leaders collapsed, David found himself in prison and narrowly escaped death at the guillotine himself. You would think he would have learned his lesson, but then in 1797 he met Napoleon Bonaparte, whose devastating charisma caused him to gush, "Bonaparte is my hero!" He painted a series of highly flattering portraits of the Corsican over the years, making the emperor taller, thinner, and less-bald than in reality. Of course, things didn't end well for Bonaparte either, and after Waterloo, David had to flee into exile in Belgium. He died there, such an enemy of France that the royal court refused to allow him to be buried in his homeland.

secret lives of artists.pngCome back tomorrow for more great artist stories. And be sure to check out Elizabeth's wonderful new book Secret Lives of Great Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You about Master Painters and Sculptors.

March 10, 2009 - 6:56am
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