I’ve been writing a bit about painting recently. Oddly enough, it actually took a couple of years of writing this blog to get going on painting analysis; I started writing mainly about film, literature, and other assorted cultural ephemera (lesbian vampires); I would continue making my own work in watercolour and oils, but painting remained outside my writing. My reconnection with thinking critically about painting started with Paula Rego in 2021, then Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, progressed with some exhibitions of painters I haven’t chosen to write about such as Cézanne at Tate Modern, and now continues with the paintings I found in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Rouen, where I was recently on holiday.
Rouen, a fabulous medieval city in Normandy, two hours north of Paris, is well-known as the birthplace of Realist novelist Gustave Flaubert, for its links to William the Conqueror and as the city which imprisoned, put on trial and then executed Joan of Arc in around 1430, while much of northern France was occupied by the English (a subject I have also written a lot about previously, as part of my Delphyne research). I visited with my sisters, we drank a lot of wine and ate an obscene amount of cheese and didn’t put a lot of pressure on ourselves to study or engage in intellectual pursuits; however, the city’s art collection was essential viewing. The collection includes works by some of my favourite painters such as Caravaggio, Velazquez, Géricault, as well as Monet and other Impressionists who painted many scenes of Rouen itself, depicting the excellent cathedral and twisting alleys.
The museum itself, in a large square near the train station, was a strange juxtaposition of grand and decrepit. It took the form of an imposing, columned building in the neoclassical style, looking the same as many cities’ state art galleries. Inside there was a tiny and disappointing gift shop (they never have the postcards I want) with some Normandy tourist tat; a slightly shabby sculpture court sitting between one wing dedicated to medieval and baroque art, and another to nineteenth, twentieth century and contemporary works. In some galleries the lights weren’t working, so you were peering at paintings in a dim twilight; in others, like the Impressionist gallery, the paintings had individual spotlights, mapped to their exact frames, so they had the uncanny impression of glowing internally. The toilets were unspeakable; the wall labels were inconsistent. Often this slight decrepitude was charming, when it didn’t actively stop you from viewing the artworks.
I meandered through the medieval and Baroque wing, drawing a few compositions I liked, having a great time. Then I moved quickly through some quite mediocre 20th century works, and just as I was thinking I might be done fairly soon, and was planning my walk back to the Air BnB for a rest before dinner, I stumbled upon the Salon de Jubé.
The Salon de Jubé was a huge, windowless red hall, with that same faded grandeur of the other gallery spaces. I never found out what ‘jubé’ meant, but I walked in there and was transfixed, spending two hours sitting, drawing, completely fascinated by the gigantic, violent, sinister Romantic canvases around the room, and sculptures mounted up the wall. These works somehow managed to be strange, unsettling, erotic, farcical despite operating within the genre of 19th century French salon painting. It’s these paintings in this room that we’ll discuss from this point on.
Above the entryway into the Salon de Jubé was a large canvas depicting a scene from the life of St Isidore the Labourer, patron saint of farmers. St Isidore in his painting looks strikingly contemporary, showing off his action hero physique, before a cinematic landscape bright with sunshine. There was something very lighthearted or comedic in this one compared to the grisly scenes of blood and death in the rest of the room; he is so casual in posture, looking not unlike Sylvester Stallone, tanned and naked apart from his low slung green shorts; meanwhile an angel who is dressed in pristine white with shell-pink wings drives his plough and oxen for him. There is an arching, rainbow-shaped composition, from the saint’s halo to the tip of the angel’s wings to the end of the stick by the ox’s head, which adds interest.
At the time, I was unfamiliar with almost all the stories depicted in the Salon de Jubé; I badly translated some wall labels, but other captions were missing or had very little information. I made my own drawings of the paintings, capturing the composition of the figures or some interesting detail, which further divorced the scene from its original context. So, the paintings had a very intriguing mystery to them, that was sadly marred by later research; take The Sons of Clovis. What on earth can be happening here? Two young men, invalids or dead, pushed out in some kind of strange Viking funeral rite? It has a sinister quality – could it be an execution? – as well as a ridiculousness, with the cosy blankets, flowers and candle.
My favourite of the works, the highlight, was Louis Boulanger’s completely crazy Le Supplice de Marzeppo. Painted when artist was only 21, this enormous canvas depicts an erotically charged and highly unusual scene. I was first struck by the central character’s anachronistic Marilyn Monroe hairstyle, frizzy blonde curls; their androgynous soft white flesh, red lips open in a scream, face still pretty despite the horror upon it. I took the figure to be female, as it contrasted so heavily with the dusky muscly henchmen attacking it. However, it turns out that the creature being tortured is actually a military general/folk hero of Ukraine, and the scene is from a Shelley poem depicting a legend from his life. I’ve never seen a legendary hero portrayed like this before; and I was so intrigued with what was happening to poor Marzeppo during this scene. He is naked, being tied up by many men, slight overkill; I wasn’t sure if he was already on the horse and they had caught him and were tying him up to take him away, to do something else to him … but they are apparently tying him onto the horse, to let it run off a cliff or something I suppose. In the upper left of the painting are three old men, watching on impassively, one of them is the architect of this strange punishment. What naughty thing had he done to deserve this treatment? The horse’s mane and tail is pretty much the same colour as Marzeppo’s, linking the two aesthetically in their fate; the animal’s buttocks are prominently displayed between his splayed legs, accentuating the erotic element of the scene.
The massive scale of Marzeppo was matched by its neighbour Andromache by Rochegrosse; also its equal in its representation of eroticism and cruelty. Andromache, depicting a horrible scene during the sacking of Troy, is a particularly bombastic display of gratuitous violence, war and massacre, with lashings of blood and tits and severed body parts. I did a sketch of the lower right corner, the dead woman surrounded by severed male heads. She looked to me strikingly like the contorted weightless beauties of Klimt, anticipating art nouveau. The crimson blood splash right in the centre of the painting is a fascinating compositional choice; I also love the way the solid buildings and figures kind of dissolve into a smoky haze. There is also a lot to enjoy in the exotic fantasy of the Greek soldiers’ armour and the beautiful fabrics and jewellery of the Trojan princesses.
I used to love these kinds of neoclassical, epic paintings when I was small and didn’t know anything about what I was looking at, so spending time in the scarlet salon was partly nostalgic. That’s one reason why this collection of paintings blew me away; I think the combination of colossal scale, mysterious narrative, unexpected juxtapositions, fine detail, and of course all the sex and violence, together combined for a thrilling viewing experience. These blockbuster paintings of the 19th century are undoubtably out of style, and were horrendously elitist and problematic even at the time they were painted; the world they came from, of Imperial pomposity, does not align in the slightest with my values and the visual art world I inhabit; however they are much more exciting than all the other paintings I’ve seen recently. Every inch of the surface is crammed with luxurious detail; each object contributes to the narrative, every animal rich with symbolism, but the artists take a louche, libertine approach which is seductive compared to the sincerely religious painting of Christian subjects by earlier movements.
These paintings make me try to identify what is so great about them, and how we can take the best bits from these relics into something new for my time.