Sunday, 20 September 2009





Citizens and Kings, the new blockbuster show at the Royal Academy in London, contains an almost overwhelming number of celebrated paintings and sculptures, even if one or two of them, such as Jacques-Louis David’s Marat Assassiné, turn out to be studio versions rather than the real thing.


The show aims to trace the shift in attitudes towards the human personality that was set in motion by the American and French Revolutions and the wars associated with these great political and social upheavals. It is, quite literally, a history lesson conducted with the help of famous work of art, and to appreciate it fully you have to carry the historical outline in your head – not merely the story of how governments rose and fell, but the pattern of cultural transformation as well.


It was a great epoch for portraiture, and all the expected names are present. From France, there are David, Ingres, Mme Vigée-Lebrun, Gros, Girodet, Géricault, Delacroix, and Houdon – the last of these has a good claim to be called the greatest of all portrait sculptors. From Italy, Canova. From Britain, Reynolds, Gainsbrough, Romney, Ramsey, Raeburn and Lawrence. From, the fledgling American Republic, Gilbert Stuart, author of the best-known likeness of George Washington. And from Spain, author of more paintings than anyone else. About the only omission I can think of is the great English painter George Stubbs, one of whose matter-of-fact depictions of human beings in association with animals should surely have been included.


Though the names are impressive, they are not always represented by their best work. The worst painting in the whole exhibition is the single example by Géricault, a clumsy double-portrait of the children of a close friend. The catalogue note goes through some interesting contortions to explain its lack of quality, saying for example, when discussing the elder of the two children that the artist “painted the boy’s body in a strange, foreshortened position, and his feet appear small and boneless in relation to his larger, detailed head. There is little sense of the child’s physicality, of bone and tissue.” It then rushes to make an unconvincing comparison with Uccello. Géricault was capable of making stunning likenesses, notably in his immensely specific portraits of people suffering from various types of monomania, but none of these are present.


The battle between the general and the specific is indeed a major theme of the show, summarized by the work with which it opens and the one with which it closes. Both are works by Ingres. One is his hieratic likeness of Napoleon I on the Imperial Throne, which dates from 1806. The other is his portrait of he newspaper proprietor Louis-François Bertin, painted just over a quarter of a century later, in 1832. Bertin had opposed Napoleon, and his newspaper, the Journal des débats, was confiscated by the government in 1811. When the Empire was overthrown, Bertin was able to resume publication, and rapidly became one of the most influential people in France. His politics were liberal, not conservative, and he opposed the rightward drift of the restored Bourbon government, just as he has previously opposed Napoleonic authoritarianism. His portrait was painted in the year that Charles X was overthrown and replaced by his cousin Louis-Philippe. Through France remained a monarchy, at least for a time, the upheaval of 1832 represented the triumph of a new bourgeois class. Ingres’ portrait of Bertin borrows subtly from Titian, but is nevertheless totally untraditional, both because of the forthright pose – the subject sits with legs spread, his hands firmly planted on his thighs – and because it abandons all the accoutrements of power.


Portraiture is always a kind of collaboration between the sitter and the artist, who has to do his best with what he is given. There is also the matter of what convention the artist chooses to adopt. Throughout the period reviewed by Citizens and Kings, the influence of Neo-classicism was strong, and this can sometimes produce ludicrous results, nowhere more so than in Jean-Baptiste Pigalle’s full-length life-size statue of a scrawny, almost nude Voltaire, which dates from 1776. However, this is no more absurd than genuine Roman statues, where the head of an emperor is perched on top of a heroic body borrowed from Policleitus.


Because there are so many paintings by Goya, of such different kinds, one gets a good idea of the way the, often unspoken, dialogue between the artist and his subject could develop. In the first room of the exhibition there is an attempt at a state portrait, the well-known Ferdinand VII in Royal Robes from the Prado. Placed next to Ingres’ portrait of Napoleon and Sir Thomas Lawrence’s bombastic likeness of George IV, this conveys an impression of shabby insignificance that may or may not have been intended by the artist. The king looks as if he has borrowed his red cloak from a dressing-up box left abandoned in the attic of one of his palaces when the royal family was exiled. Returning to Spain after the defeat of Napoleon, he clearly does not feel at home in these trappings. It comes as no surprise to learn that there are several versions of the image, all with the same head, held in the same position, but with the sitter wearing different costumes. It is a bit like one of those devices used by old-fashioned sea-side photographers, where the subject thrusts his head through a hole in a cloth, so as to appear to be part of an already prepared composition.


Much more successful is the likeness of Ferdinand Guillemardet, painted in 1798, when the sitter was French ambassador in Madrid. A protégé of Talleyrand, who was responsible for his appointment, Guillemardet makes an ostentatious display of revolutionary images, among them the tricolor plumes on his hat, which rests on the table in front of him. His poses, deliberately insouciant, with crossed legs that would have been considered indecorous in  a state portrait of this type painted only a few years previously, proclaim that he has arrived in Spain from a new and very different world.


Yet another Goya, the famous child-portrait of Don Manuel Ossorio, from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, is different from either of the two paintings just described. The figure of the little boy, in a brilliant red costume, seems almost primitive, like the work of a hugely gifted naïve artist. The painting is crammed with complex symbols. The goldfinches in their cage may refer to the life of Christ – Renaissance paintings of the Christ Child often show him holding a goldfinch. The magpie which the sitter holds captive by a string, and which hold Goya’s calling card in its beak, may symbolize the plight of the painter himself, at the mercy of the whims of his patrons.


The overall impression made by the exhibition is one of the intense excitement felt throughout the period it covers, concerning the human personality and its possibilities, The fact that portraits of this intensity are seldom, if ever, made today tells us something depressing about the society we now live in. Even the best photography is no substitute.


(Review of an Exhibition at the Royal Academy, London)


This site was last updated 20-09-2009