The Death of Marat
Jacques-Louis David 1793
David(1748-1825) spurned the Rococo style and focused instead on the Greek tradition, painting stories from antiquity, and historical moments of his own time.
Politic – David became in many ways the official painter of the French Revolution, and later one of Napoleon’s favored painters. Marat, whom David had visited merely a day before his murder, relied on David as a propagandist for the Jacobins. David designed uniforms, banners and parade floats that glorified the Revolution and its aims.
Arrangement of light – The darkness that is behind Marat is sandwiched between the lighter shape of Marat’s body in the lower left corner, and the grainy glow of light on the upper right corner. Marat’s body has an inward curve while the light bulges outward, as if to fill that curve, perhaps a very subtly implied divinity. Even though the light is softer and doesn’t slant quite in the same direction, I’m reminded of Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew.
· S Story – Marat was a Jacobin deputy to the Convention and a man of great influence in the Revolution, editor-in-chief of L’Ami du Peuple (Friend of the People, a radical paper of the Revolution) and was both feared and admired for his oratory skills. July 13’th 1793, the painting depicts the few moments after Marat’s murder; Marat had been soaking in a medicinal bath which treated his disfiguring skin disease, when Charlotte Corday, a young loyalist widow from Caen, gained access to his chambers and stabbed him.
· Narrative pieces – The bloodstained knife which Corday must have used to stab Marat lies on the floor, just to the left of his hand, which still holds a pen. The notes that rest near him are also borrowed from the subject; one is Charlotte Corday’s supplication for kindness which allowed her to be admitted to see Marat and aided his murder, while the other is Marat’s own hand, detailing the benefits to a widowed mother of five whose husband died in the defense of his country.
Symbols – David intentionally echoed the form of Christ in Michelangelo’s Pieta as well as motifs from different renderings of Descent from the Cross. The Baroque inspired lighting brings to mind other religious paintings. The potato crate at Marat’s side which bears his and David’s names on it is reminiscent of a grave stone, alluding to Marat’s humble roots and ascent to grandeur and martyrdom.
The Stone Breakers
Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was one of the leading figures of the Realist movement, which promoted relevant social introspection. The term ‘Realism’ refers to subject matter rather than representation.
The working poor – Courbet attempted to present the French working class as a political entity in a subtle yet dangerous way. The Stone Breakers allude to the 1848 laborers’ rebellion against the Second Republic, which lasted only three days but resulted in a major loss of life, and brought the working class to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. The tools which the Stone Breakers wield are easily converted to weapons, and this observation was not lost on the French populace.
Composition of movement – The old man and boy, who both agreed to pose for Courbet, echo each other’s posture. Or perhaps it is better to say that the boy echoes that of the old man; the knees bent and the muscles in the forearms working, veins bulging slightly at the wrists and heads bent low. Their stances deviate considerably from the traditionally beautiful positions of the human body first represented by the Greeks, and their movements seem mechanical; this would have been relevant to a world in the first throes of the industrial revolution, where men were being replaced by machines.
The Academy – The Parisian Academy of Arts held galleries called Salons that were virtually the only way for artists to promote their work. Works that were to be shown at the salons were jury picked; out of 13 works Courbet admitted two were rejected for political reasons, after which Courbet withdrew all his works and the first private gallery of a single artist was held. Courbet presented his works in what he called ‘The Pavilion of Realism’. The Stone Breakers was presented at a Parisian Salon despite its political undertones, since Courbet had won a particular honor the year before from a socially like-minded jury and this allowed him to present his work without relying on the jury’s sanction.
Color and shape – the stones, Stone Breakers, their clothes and even the hills and sliver of sky behind them are jagged and rough. The colors are dusty and very deep, as if the eyes are stinging from the dust clouds raised by the work and the Stone Workers are appearing to us through freshly damp eyes; the lighter colors are haloed and the darker seem almost wet. It’s hard not to automatically squint at this painting.
Impasto to Impressionism – Courbet was notorious for the rough surface of his paintings, forsaking the goal of illusionism for that of matter and emotion, paving the way for the Impressionists that would follow.
Millet (1814-1878) was a member of the Barbizon School, which in order to be close to the rural subjects it painted, settled in the village of the same name. The members specialized in detailed pictures of the forest and countryside. Millet was himself country born, and identified with the plight of the rural poor.
Gleaning – A bible-based right of members of the lowest level of poverty to collect what remained in the fields after the harvest. First dictated in Deuteronomy 24:19, Gleaning(in Europe) was originally a rule enforced by the Church, then local governments.
Socialism – The Gleaners was not well accepted by the French upper classes, who felt Millet’s monumental and noble depiction of the poverty stricken gleaners was dangerous and pointed in the wake of the 1848 revolution. The voice of the working man was being born, and it was borne by the likes of Courbet, Daumier, Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine and Charles Dickens. Millet however obstinately and somewhat naively refused to acknowledge the politics of his painting, hiding behind the personae of an uneducated peasant, allegedly like one of his painted subjects.
· Color and shape – the three Gleaners in their primary-colored head kerchiefs are stationed grandly against the width of the background, the far off stacks of plenty echoing their backbreaking poses. Millet gives the Gleaners painful yet graceful postures, as if in some alternate reality these three might be in the midst of a dance; this was very much in keeping with Millet’s fatalistic and grim humor. The colors in the painting grow darker as they near us, the earthy hue of the ground matching the shadows of the Gleaners’ skirts, while the plenty in the background fades into the lighter and dusty colors of the sky. This could be an indication that the lighter colored subject is in fact separate from the dark tinted reality; that they exist in entirely different worlds. This is possible commentary on the trap of poverty in Millet’s time, which allowed virtually no upward mobility for the lower classes.
· Book of Ruth – traditionally in Western Art the act of gleaning was represented by the biblical character Ruth, whose tale is practically the BC equivalent of a Cinderella Story; Ruth was a young widow supporting her mother-in-law, and while gleaning one day was espied by Boaz, the owner of the field, who liked what he saw and so on and so forth. The book of Ruth follows the tradition of the Ketuvim(The Writings) the third division of the Tanach(the Old Testament) in that it features a strong female lead and deals with social and economic issues.
· Lost rural lifestyle – Millet was born in the countryside, and was very proud of his rural origins. With the industrial revolution causing the rural lifestyle to slowly become extinct, like many artists of his time Millet represented the countryside and rural themes in an idealized fashion, suffused with political elements.
Honeré Daumier 1834
Daumier (1808-1879) was a bold and outspoken political cartoonist in a time when artists were frequently jailed for perceived subversion of public opinion.
· Lithography – first invented by the German printmaker Alois Senefelder in 1798, Lithography allows the artist far more freedom than other printmaking processes. Lithography hinges on the chemical reactions of oil and water, and permits the artist to draw freehand on the stone plate before it is processed and applied to paper.
· Equal accessibility – the first step on the road to social equality will always and forever be the freedom of information. The availability of Daumier’s political satire was just as important as its content; his choice of prints as a medium is of paramount magnitude, as this wide distribution and the works’ appearance in the widely read French liberal journal Caricature made his social commentary available to an unprecedentedly large audience of different social and economic standing.
· Louis Phillipe – the last ruling king of France, Louis Phillipe was a self-styled citizen-king or King of the French, in reference to ruling a people rather than a territory. Despite his early liberal leanings his government became increasingly conservative leading to criticism from the same factions that had called for his crowning. More importantly, Louis Phillipe’s loss of popularity gave rise to or rose from Daumier’s satirical cartoons of the king, and the creation of the deprecating caricature known as the Pearhead.
· Incident – the title Rue Transnonain refers to the street on which the incident depicted took place, like Goya’s Third of May merely the mention of the date or place is meant to inspire in us certain emotions. On Rue Transnonain on April 15’th 1834 an unknown sniper killed a civil guard during a workers’ demonstration. The rest of the guards retaliated by storming the housing block from which the shot was fired and massacring all therein.
· Misleading – Perhaps the most jarring aspect of this work it its tendency to appear perfectly harmless to the first time viewer, at least for the first few moments. The fallen man could be sleeping or drunk, the stains on his nightshirt and the floor surrounding him could be wine, but they’re not and he’s not. It is only when one of the other prone figures is noticed that the realization begins to sink in that the scene is violent rather than tranquil; the child beneath the central figure was very likely killed despite the central figure’s attempts to protect it. Our view is from a low angle, as if we were one of the victims of the incident.
Cassatt (1844-1926) was an American Impressionist painter who was greatly influenced by Degas. Her central themes were the home life of women and children.
· Degas’ disciple – Cassatt first came to Degas’ notice in the Parisian Salon of1874. When both her entries to the Salon of 1877 were rejected, Degas invited Cassatt to present her works with the Impressionists, who had removed themselves from the Parisian artistic ‘mainstream’ and, following Courbet’s first example, held private exhibitions.
· Japonisme – Cassatt like many of the Impressionists was greatly influenced by Japanese Art. It wasn’t till the early 1850s that Europe began trading with Japan, and Westerners were exposed to Japanese culture. Just as in Degas’ The Tub, the overhead perspective in The Bath was most likely influenced by Japanese woodcuts. Cassatt also created Japanese style prints and painted them in by hand.
· Circles and Stripes – Cassatt was a highly skilled draftsman and had a preference for asymmetrical compositions and un-posed figures, reminiscent of Japanese prints. While the color is not exactly flat, Cassatt relies on shapes and bold outlines to present her figures, in what might simplistically seem to be a series of circles and stripes. The basin and jug echo the roundness of the figures’ bodies, while the stripes on their clothing (whether pattern or shadow) are echoed in the designs both on the floor and the wall behind them.
· Intimacy rather than sentiment – rather than idealizing the relationship between mother and child Cassatt shows us a moment of true intimacy. The mother’s strong and dark hand against the child’s lighter skin and the gentleness with which it caresses the small foot are both exceedingly tender and efficient. The affectionate placing of the mother’s mouth over the child’s shoulder is reminiscent of an order or request that has either stemmed from or will soon turn into a kiss.
· Modern motherhood – in the 1870s many concepts of childcare were revolutionized, and many of them are presented in Cassatt’s works. Scientists and physicians recommended a hands-on approach to child-rearing, suggesting that mothers care for their own children rather than nannies and servants, and that children of all ages should be both read to and bathed regularly.