Art Institute’s Girodet: Romantic Rebel shows sensual side of European history

By Emily Warner

Girodet: Romantic Rebel, at the Art Institute through April 30, is as dramatic and charged as the artistic life it showcases. After a small introductory room, the show opens into a shadowy, blue gallery space with two enormous oil paintings gleaming from the darkness of the walls. The paintings, The Dead Christ Supported by the Virgin (1789) and The Sleep of Endymion (1791), are quite different in subject matter. One depicts the Biblical moment after the crucifixion, the other the classical myth of Diana’s conquest, in the form of a shaft of light on the hunter Endymion. Both, however, draw the viewer into an enclosed, grotto-like setting and into the evocative, dream-like space that is Girodet’s hallmark. The unabashed theatricality of the exhibition continues throughout, with the works hung on walls that are alternately navy blue, soft gray, and deep vibrant red.

Traveling to Chicago from the Louvre, the exhibition showcases the works of Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767–1824). The artist lived and painted during the turbulent years of the French Revolution and its political aftershocks. Taken together, the works in the show allude to a vast array of political and historical concerns. The Spirits of French Heroes Welcomed by Ossian into Odin’s Paradise (1801) blends Celtic and Nordic mythology with strident French nationalism in a complex allegory on Napoleon’s recent peace with Austria. A later painting shows us Napoleon himself—now no longer general but emperor—dressed in the flowing robes of kingship.

More unusual is the Portrait of Citizen Jean-Baptiste Belley, Ex-representative of the Colonies (1797). Belley was a former Senegalese slave and abolitionist, here presented leaning against the bust of the anti-slavery figure Abbé Raynal. This alludes, perhaps, to the debate over slavery in the colonies and to the rights of the gens de couleur (people of color) more generally. Girodet’s paintings reflect the many cultural and literary tropes of the period, drawing on ancient myth and poetry, Celtic and Nordic mythology, the exoticized Orient, and romanticized notions of the American Indian.

Many of the works deal with subjects at the brink of great changes. The portrait of Belley was painted just before the end of France’s colonial ambitions in North America in 1803. The Emperor Napoleon, when depicted by Girodet in 1812, was only a year away from abdicating the throne. Likewise, Girodet’s style is a mix of the Neoclassical influence of his master, Jacques-Louis David, and the emotional and psychological concerns that would be celebrated by the coming generation of full-blown Romantics like Eugene Delacroix and Theodore Géricault. The pleasure of the show lies as much in the hints of what is to come as in the works themselves.

Girodet returns again and again to sleep and dreaming as an access to the human psyche. Endymion lies with his eyes closed, immersed in a private realm of sensual luxuriance. The 1798 Danaë shows the classical princess standing nude on a bed littered with sleep-inducing poppies, gazing at her own reflection in a mirror. Like the Endymion, the Danaë plays up the erotic implications of sleep and self-immersion. Elsewhere, the dream-like space is conveyed through ghostly figures or the hazy space of the afterworld. Scenes take place in cloudy, windswept skies or in settings with obscured backgrounds.

The final painting in the exhibition, 1813’s The Burial of Atala, combines elements of the Endymion and the Dead Christ that open the show. The painting takes its subject from a novel by Renée de Chateaubriand about the tragic love between two American Indians and their ultimate embrace of Christianity. Laid out to our view, the pale Atala captures both the beauty of Endymion and the pathos of The Dead Christ. Enclosed in a dark grove with ferns and flowers, the romantic wildness and sensuality of other paintings is here subdued by the Christian message and the cross that Atala holds in her hands.

Girodet compellingly evokes the inner realm of the human psyche, infusing his landscapes and settings with the irrational fears and desires of his figures. His talent is indisputable in both the commanding oil paintings and the delicate pen-and-wash works. Despite the almost over-the-top presentation, the exhibition is an exhilarating view into a Romantic artistic spirit at a troubled and fascinating time in European history.