L’Antiquité Rêvée, Gérôme & Anticomania

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive

L’Antiquité Rêvée, louvre, paris

“Psyche Abandoned” (1795) by Jacques-Louis David. © Private Collection

Art styles come and go with the ever-seesawing cycles of fashion just as surely as hemlines and shoulder widths change every few years. One style that is always sure to make a regular comeback

L’Antiquité Rêvée, louvre, paris

“Psyche Abandoned” (1795) by Jacques-Louis David. © Private Collection

Art styles come and go with the ever-seesawing cycles of fashion just as surely as hemlines and shoulder widths change every few years. One style that is always sure to make a regular comeback is the Antique, and this seems to be one of tholse moments when it is exerting its fascination: three current Paris exhibitions touch on the question of Antiquity in the arts.

The mega-show at the Louvre entitled “L’Antiquité Rêvée: Innovations et Résistances au XVIIIe Siècle” focuses on the revival of Antique tastes in 18th-century Europe, largely in reaction to the decorative exuberance of the rococo style, which made the relative austerity of Roman and Greek art something of a relief.

This was not the first time European artists had looked back to Antiquity, of course – everything Antique was big during the Renaissance, and it remained a reference point in the ensuing centuries but this exhibition concentrates on 18th-century interpretations of it in painting, sculpture, architecture and furniture, at a time when all the arts “were looking to the past for the sources of modernity,” as the exhibition’s curators put it.

During the 18th century, the hot topic was whether modern art could equal the works of Antiquity. The debate was fueled by archaeological discoveries and excavations (among them Pompeii and Herculaneum), the development of art history as a discipline and the opening of the first museums.

The exhibition looks at the question from many angles. Works by Edme Bouchardon, for example, show how artists who looked to Greek or Roman models for inspiration often depicted their subjects in a more lifelike, dynamic way, as in his “L’Amour se Faisant un Arc dans le Massue d’Hercule” (1750), based on the often-copied “Eros Stringing His Bow” by Greek sculptor Lysippos. While studying copies of the statue, Bouchardon also did careful studies of a live model to create what is now considered a masterpiece of French 18th-century sculpture.

The exhibition also illustrates the backlash to neoclassicism, with examples of what the curators call neo-Baroque (e.g., Francisco Goya and Jean-Honoré Fragonard),


An example of the highly emotive “Sublime” antithesis to the Antique: James Barry’s “King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia” (1786-88). Pyms Gallery, London

neo-Mannerism (the young Jacques-Louis David), and the Sublime or Gothic (Henry Fuseli, James Barry).

David, whose reputation survived the French Revolution and ensuing political upheavals, is also used as an example of late 18th-century “triumphant” neoclassicism, with its martial themes, cult of Virtue and glorification of heroes. The show ends, however, with an atypical painting by David: while it harks back to antiquity with a mythological subject, it has nothing triumphant about it. “Psyche Abandoned” (pictured at the top of the page), dating from 1795, is an unfinished work that shows Psyche sitting completely naked and vulnerable, caught as if by a flashbulb in the depths of her grief after being deserted by her lover, Cupid. She has pulled her hands away from her face and stares hopelessly at the viewer, her cheeks flushed and her eyed rimmed red from her tears.

This lovely work, which presages the Romanticism of the 19th century, belongs to a private collection, making this a rare chance to see it. Nearby is a marble statue of Psyche, also from a private collection: Antonio Canova’s “Standing Psyche” (1789-92). The half-naked beauty, delicately holding a butterfly (symbol for the soul) between her fingers, is meant to represent the union of body and soul. The curators point out how, compared with an Antique statue, Canova’s work is less static, with the body turning in space. (Canova’s masterpiece “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss” can be seen in the Louvre’s permanent collection.)

“L’Histoire en Spectacle” at the Musée d’Orsay moves us forward to the 19th-century with a show of the work of an artist who also looked to Antiquity of the decidedly heroic sort in his case – for inspiration: Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). Many of his depictions of historic and mythological subjects seem histrionic to us today, but they are fascinating to “read,” and some are quite affecting, as in two paintings in which the corpses of once-revered leaders – Julius Caesar and Marshall Ney – are left behind in the dirt as their executioners leave the scene of the crime.

Popular in his day but since then neglected and considered a reactionary artist, Gérôme is presented here as “paradoxically modern,” in part because he used photography in his work. Most amusingly, his ability to create an “illusion of the real” inspired a number of 20th-century filmmakers, many of whom copied Gérôme’s not-always-historically-accurate pictures of such subjects as gladiators almost point for point in epic films like Quo Vadis and Julius Caesar.

Yet another show dealing with the theme of Antiquity, “Anticomania,” at the Galerie J. Kugel (in a gorgeous Left Bank mansion overlooking the Seine), examines how Antique inspiration has repeatedly returned to influence the arts ever since the Renaissance, alternating with periods of rejection of it. This free exhibition boasts a spectacular decor created by opera set designer Pier-Luigi Pizzi and should not be missed (it closes on Dec. 18).

Heidi Ellison

Musée du Louvre: Hall Napoléon. Métro: Palais-Royal-Musée du Louvre. Open Wednesday-Monday, 9am-6pm (until 10pm on Wednesday and Friday). Closed Tuesday. Admission: €11.00. Through February 14. (The Louvre is also holding an interesting exhibition called Paper Museums: Antiquity in Books 1600-1800 through Jan. 3). www.louvre.fr

Musée d’Orsay: 1, rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 75007 Paris. Métro: Solferino. RER: Musée d’Orsay. Tel.: 01 40 49 48 14. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 9:30am-6pm (until 9:45pm on Thursday). Closed Monday. Admission: €8. Through January 23. www.musee-orsay.fr

Galerie J. Kugel: 25, quai Anatole France, 75007 Paris. Métro: Assemblée Nationale. Tel.: 01 42 60 86 23. Free admission. Open Monday-Saturday, 10:30am-7pm. www.galeriekugel.com

Support Paris Update by ordering books from Paris Update’s Amazon store at no extra cost. Click on your preferred Amazon location: U.K., France, U.S.

Reader Reaction: Click here to respond to this article (your response may be published on this page and is subject to editing).

More reviews of Paris art shows.

© 2010 Paris Update


What do you think? Send a comment:

Your comment is subject to editing. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe for free!

The Paris Update newsletter will arrive in your inbox every Wednesday, full of the latest Paris news, reviews and insider tips.