Saturday, April 19, 2014

Allegories of the Four Continents (1834)

 François Dubois: Allegories of the Four Continents - Africa
  François Dubois: Allegories of the Four Continents - America
  François Dubois: Allegories of the Four Continents - Asia
 François Dubois: Allegories of the Four Continents - Europe

Believed to have been commissioned for a French country estate, Dubois' Allegories of the Four Continents are more than interior decoration; the quartet reflects wealthy Europeans’ global influence and fascination with exploration, conquest, and colonization. Before the sixteenth century, the world was pictured as a great circle divided in half: one part represented by Europe and Africa while the other Asia. Dramatically expanding worldviews in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries further divided the circle into four quarters, introducing the Americas and allowing Asia and Africa each a distinct visual identity.  By the nineteenth century the four Allegories were immediately recognizable on maps, in history books, popular newspapers, architecture, and the impressive paintings of Salon and Academy artists. Celebrated for his historical and mythological subjects, Dubois follows contemporary conventions by depicting Europe as a woman warrior, an Artemis or Amazon queen with Western weapons of conquest: a horse, sword, rifle and cannon. In contrast to Europe’s armor, her fellow Allegories of more exotic lands are nearly nude with only loosely draped cloth accentuating their curves.  Asia is the most modest of the three, her back to the viewer, revealing her creamy skin in an odalisque pose, holding a peacock feather fan and joined by a finely crafted incense burner and domesticated camel.  Reflecting the alluring mystery of more unknown lands, the Americas and Africa hold tomahawk and hunting arrows respectively, companioned with equally emblematic animals—a lizard and parrot and a resting lion.  Both are equal parts Classical queen and “real” native, with ethnographic features, dressed in tribal feathers or crafted jewelry as described by travelers to foreign lands.  Significantly, the Americas and Africa each look toward the right, toward the other half of the room from where the panels of Europe and Asia were most likely positioned. Looking across at one another, each of these Allegories represent the belief that the undeveloped frontiers of the Americas and Africa were yet unspoiled by modern life but needed the cultured touch of more "accomplished" civilizations. In the end, however, these figures are a pastiche of the real and imagined qualities of each Continent's people - linked by a shared appreciation of the universal beauty of women. [Sotheby's Auction Catalog, 25 October 2005, Lot 52 (pdf file)]

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