Barefoot and carrying a heavy sack of potatoes on her head, a young peasant woman returns from the fields in the early evening as Capella, the "shepherd's star," rises over her shoulder. Although the model was an actual agricultural worker from the artist's native village in the Artois region of northern France, Jules Breton gives the figure a classical monumentality and timelessness that avoids any commentary on her social position. Rather, the painting presents an idealized and romanticized image of the French peasant as the heroic embodiment of a traditional, idyllic way of life—one that was rapidly disappearing in the nineteenth century under the pressures of the Industrial Revolution.
Unlike the more frank, unsentimental images of peasants by such French Realist artists as Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet, Breton sought to ennoble his scenes with the aura of history painting—the depiction of scenes of battle, great deeds, or mythological stories-that-was the most revered genre of the French arbiter of taste, the Académie des Beaux-Arts. As the critic Arsène Houssaye wrote of The Shepherd's Star in 1888, "imagine that she carried on her back a sheaf of wheat instead of a sack of potatoes, and then she could be the personification of harvesting. She would be a modern Ceres." [Toledo Museum of Art]
Alfred Guillou: Arriving at the Pardon of Saint Anne de Fouesnant at Concarneau
In France the term “pardon” is used for religious ceremonies when icons from the church are paraded to celebrate the saint’s day or another important occasion. Usually these involve men carrying heavy icons through the streets but in Brittany apparently it was common to bring the saints in by small boats.
Translating the sign posted by the painting entitled The Arrival of the Pardon of Sainte-Anne: “The pardon is one of the manifestations of the faith in Brittany. In holiday dress, carrying banners and statues men, women and children return by land and sea [the statue of Saint Anne of Fouesnant] to the sanctuary.” Saint Anne is the patron saint of sailors. The next image is similar. [In My Suitcase]
Édouard Joseph Dantan’s naturalistic painting A Casting From Life depicts the moment when a painter and his assistant remove the plaster negative from the leg of a female nude. Dantan’s painting thematizes the technological creation of a perfect human representation according to a classical aesthetic of elegance and beauty. Not without blatant gender implications, it narrates the positive story of a media negative, the plaster cast. However, this snapshot from an artist’s studio ultimately withholds the final aesthetic product for which the cast was made (if it is not the female nude or the painting itself), so that the story the painting tells offers viewers the hope but not the certainty that the technological process glorified by the image will eventually generate an exceptionally beautiful naturalistic artwork. [A. Dana Weber, “Vivifying the Uncanny,” in Fact and Fiction: Literary and Scientific Cultures in Germany and Britain, ed. Christine Lehleiter, University of Toronto Press, 2016, p. 309]
Judith by Charles Landelle, one of the most successful French artists of his age, was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1887. It is uncertain when the painting entered the Russell-Cotes collection. However, as an old photograph testifies, Sir Merton Russell-Cotes must have held the work in high esteem as he hung it in a prominent position in the entrance hall to his home East Cliff Hall. In keeping with Russell-Cotes' taste, this exotic painting's subject aptly combines two meanings. While Judith was widely regarded as a symbol of womanly virtue, from the Renaissance (a period Landelle was particularly interested in) Judith also came to be regarded as an allegory of man's misfortunes at the hands of scheming woman. In this painting, as an early curator of the museum describes her: Judith is represented as a magnificent woman standing like a pillar, fierce as a panther; with eyes dark and penetrating, beautiful yet cruel in expression. Her story is drawn from the Old Testament apocryphal book, Judith, in which she is described as rich Jewish widow, who in an act of selfless patriotism saved her city of Bethulia, which was under siege by the Assyrian army. By posing as a turn-coat, dressed so as to catch the eye of any man, Judith gained the confidence of the enemy General Holofernes, who after a banquet in her honor planned to seduce her. However, being overcome by alcohol he collapsed on his bed, vulnerable to his fate. Landelle represents Judith drawing back the bed's curtain and clasping the sword with which she smote him twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head. [VADS]
The most successful of the various paintings that Alfred Roll sent to the Salon in the 1880s were imposing figures of women going about their daily work. By including the names of the models in the titles of his paintings, he gave these scenes from everyday life the status of history paintings.
In 1888, the heroine of his offering for the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français was Amanda (Manda) Lamétrie. Born in 1867, and so scarcely twenty when Roll painted her portrait, Manda was a peasant woman from Sainte-Marguerite-sur-Mer, on the Normandy coast, near the artist's summer home, Castel d'Ailly. The young woman ran a farm where she raised a horse and three cows. Roll has put one of the cows, after milking, in the green orchard bordered by a hedge that forms the background of this painting. A neat summary of his model's occupation and surroundings.
Manda Lamétrie forms a monumental figure in the centre of the painting attracting the eye with her light-coloured clothing, particularly the large, pale yellow rectangle of her apron. Her determined expression is no less striking.
Regarded as the most important painting in the exhibition of 1888, this portrait was reproduced in large numbers, which did not stop Manda Lamétrie from going on with her quiet life as a Norman peasant, supplementing her income with shrimp fishing on the coast and keeping an eye on holiday houses, including Castel d'Ailly. [Musée d'Orsay]
Alexandre Cabanel: Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners
The notion of Cleopatra as the archetypal femme fatale of Antiquity has long appealed to the imagination. She ruled over a mighty empire, was a mistress to both Julius Caesar and his successor Mark Antony, and eventually took her own life after the Battle of Actium.
Like many 19th-century writers and artists, the French painter Alexandre Cabanel drew inspiration from the ancient Egyptian queen. It was, after all, the era of Egyptomania, as archaeological finds, scientific discoveries and voyages of exploration were generating an unprecedented interest in the culture of ancient Egypt.
In this canvas, Queen Cleopatra looks on as her servants test a poison on some prisoners. She is seated in luxurious surroundings, adorned with animal hides, textiles and plants. At her feet lies a leopard, a symbol of regal power. A servant keeps her cool with a fan.
Cabanel rendered Cleopatra and her surroundings in accurate, colorful detail. The figures in the background, where the horror takes place, are represented slightly smaller and in a hazier fashion. The painting is a typical example of 'l'art pompier', a derisory term for academic painting from the second half of the 19th century. [Konincke Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp]
While today France and Germany are leading a peaceful and (hopefully) common way out of the Euro crisis, it may be good to remember that historically, European future was more often than not decided on the battlefield.
Rising tension between the two nations resulted in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, leading to the downfall of Napoleon III and the unification of Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm I. Moreover, France had to surrender its Eastern provinces of Alsace-Lorraine to the victors. The revanchist sentiments resulting from this humiliation, fueled by nationalist pride on both sides of the volatile Alsatian border, inevitably contributed to causing the two 20th-century World Wars.
In 1871, Lorraine-born painter Albert Bettannier opted for French citizenship and dedicated much of his later work to the public desire of recovering the lost territories. In The Black Stain, painted in 1887, a geography teacher shows his pupils the area that must be regained by a next generation, in line with the ‘one and indivisible’ education policies of the French Republic. Various details reveal the warlike spirit of the day. Next to the black stain, a huge sinister blackboard represents the German threat in the East, heightened by the drum in the corner. On the far wall, a map of the walled-in city of Paris reminds of the Prussian siege of 1871, symbolized by the black, unlit ceiling-lamp that stretches out its eagle-like talons towards it.
The boy in front of his classmates wears the ‘school battalion’ uniform instituted by the state in 1883. It allowed pupils to march, drill and practice shooting, as testified by the gun-rack in the right corner. One boy in the first row is dressed in impeccable white and wears the Legion d’Honneur, a prefiguration of future heroism. In the foreground, an optimistic splash of sunlight reflects the heraldic Cross of Lorraine. [Rijksmuseum Amsterdam]