The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Crossing the Channel -- Historical Background

"Exemplary in its conception and presentation.: -Le Monde, Paris

About the Exhibition

Historical Background

Selected Paintings


Related Events

Interview with the Curator

Literature and History

reece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, One of the most striking aspects of the French craze for British culture was an enthusiasm for British literature and drama. Writers from Stendhal to Victor Hugo revered Shakespeare, while painters borrowed themes from Lord Byron and Walter Scott. Described by one of his intimate friends as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know," Byron, with his passionate verse, enthralled a generation frustrated by the French government’s conservative social policies and its belated support for Greek independence from Ottoman Turkey. There is hardly a year in Eugène Delacroix’s long career when he did not paint a subject inspired by Byron’s poetry. His personal tribute to Byron, Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, makes its first appearance in America in four decades.

Scott’s novels fueled a parallel taste for historical European subjects, especially those relating to the emergence of independent nation-states during the Middle Ages. No other author of this period enjoyed such international celebrity. In the 1820s alone, nearly 230 paintings illustrating passages from his stories were exhibited in Paris. Scott’s Ivanhoe virtually launched the modern discipline of historiography in France.

As history painting underwent a radical redefinition, medieval and Renaissance scenes challenged the longstanding academic taste for large mythological compositions. At the same time, parallels between English and French history, such as the British Civil War and the French Revolution, were studied in France for possible answers to modern political and social issues. Paul Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey, for instance, was a poignant reminder of the recent execution of Marie-Antoinette.

The Painters of Modern Life

As the shifting definition of history painting came to include a broader range of subjects, scenes of contemporary life also grew in popularity. The principal exponent of this new sensibility in Great Britain had been David Wilkie, whose Village Holiday of 1811 exploited Dutch and Flemish sources, while promoting domestic virtues. But what most appealed to the French in Wilkie’s descriptive method was his uncanny ability to individualize character within a narrative context.
When he was in London, Géricault admired the "portraits . . . genres, and animal paintings" by Wilkie and others, which he saw in public exhibitions. Even as his Raft of the Medusa hung in the Egyptian Hall, Géricault renounced history painting and began to paint animals instead, especially draft horses and racehorses. Like Delacroix, he appreciated the emotive power that British artists such as James Ward and Edwin Landseer gave to animals.

French portrait painting was also transformed by the example of Thomas Lawrence. His celebrated Portrait of Master Charles William Lambton epitomized what was thought to be the British taste for "color and effect"—a brilliant palette and a bravura execution. Géricault’s intense investigations of insanity (two of which are in this exhibition), undertaken for his psychiatrist friend, Dr. Georget, were equally an attempt to get beyond the formulaic expressions of character typical of contemporary portraits, such as J.-A.-D. Ingres’s Comte de Pastoret.

Timeline 1816-1826
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Images: Eugène Delacroix, Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi. , Oil on canvas, Bordeaux Musée des Beaux Arts © Cliché du M.B.A. de Bordeaux/ photographe Lysiane Gauthier.
Théodore Géricault, Mounted Jockey, c. 1821-22, Oil on canvas, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Photo: Katherine Wetzel. © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.


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