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A romantic rebellion against neoclassicism

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Girodet’s sensualism at the Art Institute of Chicago

Chances are good that if your Art History 101 textbook mentioned Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Triosson at all, it was briefly. Despite the artist’s unorthodox style, which was seen as revolutionary at the time, little attention has been paid to him by the art historical canon. A retrospective exhibition, Girodet: Romantic Rebel, currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, hopes to shed light on Girodet’s career, contemporary reception, and, ultimately, the implications of his revolutionary works.

A student of renowned painter Jacques-Louis David, Girodet broke from the rigid, Neoclassical style of his teacher in order to create works that were overwhelmingly sensual and emotive. By combining the technical skills he gained from David with his own revolutionary politics, Girodet produced works that are marked by their unique content and, often, by their subtle eroticism. Deeply involved in the politics of the French Revolution, he aimed to insert these ideologies into his work and ultimately to promote their proliferation.

Romantic Rebel chronicles Girodet’s development as both artist and revolutionary by focusing on several key works and providing historical context, as well as preparatory sketches and finished paintings or drawings. This presentation provides visitors to the exhibition with insight into the production and potential meaning of Girodet’s enigmatic works. Girodet’s “Oath of the Horatii” (1786), for example, is contrasted with an almost identical painting of the same title painted by David two years earlier to illustrate the ways in which Girodet broke from Neoclassicism. When viewed in this context, the artist’s legacy and revolutionary ways become evident.

Girodet wanted to provoke a passionate reaction in viewers of his time. In works such as “Deluge” (1806), he engaged in a deliberate competition with such established artists as Michelangelo and Poussin in his emotive display. Contemporary viewers might find the visages of the subjects of “Deluge” seem almost ridiculous in their raw emotion; but in Girodet’s time, however, they provoked exactly the sort of sublime response for which the artist hoped.
It is this sort of reaction that established Girodet in the nineteenth century as the Romantic rebel he is today. While it seems unlikely that the efforts of the AIC will result in the revision of any Art History 101 textbooks, the sensual, erotic properties of Girodet’s works serve as an engaging counterpoint to the more popularly known artists of his time.

Girodet: Romantic Rebel is at the AIC through April 30.

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