Literature and History
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 governments conservative social policies and
its belated support for Greek independence from Ottoman Turkey.
There is hardly a year in Eugène Delacroixs long career
when he did not paint a subject inspired by Byrons poetry.
His personal tribute to Byron, Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi,
makes its first appearance in America in four decades.
Scotts 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. Scotts 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 Delaroches Execution
of Lady Jane Grey, for instance, was a poignant reminder of
the recent execution of Marie-Antoinette.
The Painters of Modern Life
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 Wilkies descriptive method
was his uncanny ability to individualize character within a narrative
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
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. Géricaults 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. Ingress Comte de Pastoret.