I'd like to thank the Academy...

Finding of Moses, 1904, Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Betty Blythe as the Queen of Sheba, 1921

Theda Bara

Phedre, 1880, Alexandre Cabanel

Intolerance, 1916, D.W. Griffith

Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners, 1887, Alexandre Cabanel

King of Kings, 1927, Cecil B. DeMille

The Ten Commandments, 1923, Cecil B. DeMille

Pola Negri

Pollice Verso (Thumbs down) 1872, Jean-Léon Gerome

Have you ever noticed the languorous, sloe-eyed ladies in certain late 19th century paintings seemed oddly like... silent film extras? And those fever-pitch historical tableaux, the overwrought gestures.... there's something familiar about them? Recently, some stylistic details and gestures in "academic art" caught my eye.

Academic art as you may know, is the rigorous, technically brilliant, representational art officially sanctioned by the French Académie des beaux-arts and celebrated during its heyday—the 19th century. (So codified and laden with narrative detail is the typical academic work that to look at it is to understand by default the revolutionary vision of van Gogh or Degas.) By the 20th century, academic art was lampooned by the intelligentsia and arbiters of high culture. Many critics today would still consider it the epitome of Victorian kitsch, a pantomime, preposterously sentimental— the equivalent of mass market book jacket art or Thomas Kincaid, Painter of Light.

Academic art's characteristic "licked finish"— the virtuosic handling of paint that removes all trace of the brushstroke– helped fuel 19th century painters' battle with the camera (the dispute was something like this: The camera recorded reality with unquestionable accuracy--but was it art? science? where did this leave painting?). Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres instructed his students that in the academic technique,
"The brushstroke, as accomplished as it may be, should not be visible: otherwise, it prevents the illusion, immobilizes everything. Instead of the object represented, it calls attention to the process: instead of the thought, it betrays the hand."
A couple months ago, I had a conversation with a former curator from the Dahesh Museum, the quirky little museum of 19th century academic art formerly on Madison Avenue (but now, sadly, without exhibit space). I mentioned my observation that some characters in these paintings reminded me of silent film. "Oh yes," he said, "DeMille was a collector. And in lighting and staging, Gerome* was especially influential." Of course! Then it all made sense! Although in some cases decades separate artwork and film, the commonality is obvious. 

As academic painting lost status in high art, its stagey historicism remained popular with the masses. The Victorian melodrama, Orientalist fantasies, and sentimentality of the 19th century seeped into the 20th, and carried on in popular culture — in certain ways all the way to the 1930s. The conventions of Victorian art became a starting point for film drama. So in a sense Ingres' dictum that the  brushstroke
not "prevent the illusion" had been taken to its furthest degree: the brush and canvas have been eliminated, all that is left is illusion.

Jerusalem/Golgotha, Consummatum Est, 1867, Jean-Leon Gerome

*Gerome's searing vision of the crucifixion, above, is astonishing for leaving out the actual subject. Like some bizarre anticipation of film noir, the angle, and the "off-camera" lighting, create a scene of portent with light and shadow.


Israel in Egypt, 1867, Edward John Poynter
A reader, Marc, sent a link to this incredible image. The wikipedia description of it reads, in part, "Poynter conflated features of the temples of Thebes, Edfu and Philae, backed by the Great Pyramid at Giza and the limestone cliffs of Thebes, to serve as the cinemascope-like background" (my emphasis)


Marc said...

The Ten Commandments still must surely be based on this.

angela said...

Wow great find!

Marcella Lally said...

I like your blog. Your insight is thoughtful. Much to to look at and learn from.
thank you

angela said...

thanks Marcella!

Liza said...

Fascinating. I love this blog!

Meanwhile early animated films of the same era were busily introducing the artist's actual hand (and arm and body) into the drawn picture, thereby breaking the picture plane entirely, and introducing a new era of self referential art, so dear to the avant-garde. Watch the Max Fleischer Out Of The Inkwell series for a great example.

I just happened (really, I swear) to post something yesterday on my blog about those early films, so they are on my mind.

angela said...

Thank you Liza. I hope its a blog that loves you back. Now I will go google Max Fleischer.

Liza said...

you can link my name to my blogger page, link to my blog, seesaw, where I have two videos and some good links and references to follow. You're going to love Max Fleisher.

Liza said...

PS: I used to live on your street, or maybe one over, at 721. ( I looked at your website. Classy)


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