Ary Scheffer

Self portrait by Ary Scheffer (1795)
Self portrait by Ary Scheffer (1795)

I have often mentioned in previous blogs that the subject for a blog frequently comes from something I have stumbled upon whilst researching another blog.  Today’s blog is all about the Dutch painter Ary Scheffer who had a connection with the artist I talked about in the last two blogs, Théodore Géricault, but more of that connection later as I first want to look at the life of the Dutchman who was a leading Romantic painter.

Ary Scheffer came from an artistic background.  His father was Johann- Bernhard Scheffer a portraitist who originally hailed from Hamburg but from his early teenage years lived in the Netherlands.  He had married Cornellia Lamme, another artist who concentrated on miniature portraits.  Ary Scheffer’s maternal grandfather was Arie Lamme the Dutch landscape painter.  The couple, who lived in Dordrecht,  had three sons, Ary, the eldest, was born in February 1795, his brother Karel Arnold Scheffer who was born in 1796, went on to become a journalist and writer and their youngest, Hendrik, who also became an artist, was born in September 1798.

The Three Brothers Scheffer in a Landscape by Ary Scheffer (1824)
The Three Brothers Scheffer in a Landscape by Ary Scheffer (1824)

Ary Scheffer was given his first artistic tuition by his parents but when he was eleven years of age his parents enrolled him at the Stadstekenacademie in Amsterdam on a three year art course.   During that time he put forward one of his paintings, Hanibal Searing to Avenge the Death of his Brother Hasdrubal, in the first Exhibition of Living Masters in Amsterdam in 1808.

The painting is now in the Dordrecht Museum along with a number of his other works which are hung in the Ary Scheffer Room.  That same year, his father became the court painter of Louis Bonaparte, who ruled over the Kingdom of Holland, a position bestowed on him by his brother, Napoleon Bonaparte.  Ary’s father only held the position for a year as in 1809 he died.  Following the death of her husband, Cornelia Scheffer moved to Paris with her three sons where Ary and his brother Hendrik became pupils at the studio of the French painter, Pierre Guérin.   Ary and Hendrik were in good company at the studio as two of their fellow pupils would become the figureheads of the French Romantic movement in art, Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault.

Ary Scheffer later attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and from 1812 for the next thirty five years exhibited works at the annual Salons.  Along with Delacroix and Géricault, Ary Scheffer is recognised as one of the great painters of the Romantic school.  Following the end of the Revolution and the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte the French bourgeoisie once again came to prominence and along with the State were the main patrons of the Arts.   Scheffer’s work was very popular and at the end of each Salon his paintings would be snapped up by eager buyers.

The Soldier's Widow by Ary Scheffer
The Soldier’s Widow by Ary Scheffer

In the 1822 Salon he exhibited his very sentimental painting Soldier’s Widow which was very popular and although the whereabouts of the painting is unknown there are a number of monochrome prints of the work.

General Lafayette by Ari Scheffer (1823)
General Lafayette by Ari Scheffer (1823)

Ary Scheffer was also an excellent portraitist and in 1823 he completed probably one of the best portraits. It was of General Lafayette, the French aristocrat and military officer.  It was a full-length standing portrait that was the most popular image of Lafayette as an older man, who had once been a general in the American Revolution War (1775-83) against the British and a close friend of George Washington.  Lafayette was a popular subject for prints in the first half of the 19th century.  He was a hero to both the French and the Americans; he was the first foreign dignitary to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress and in 1824, on the occasion of Lafayette’s celebrated tour of the United States, Ary Scheffer presented his painting to the U.S. House of Representatives. It has hung to the left of the Speaker’s rostrum since the opening of the current House Chamber in 1858.  Lafayette would later figure in the French Revolution in 1789 and in the July Revolution of 1830 which led to Louis-Philippe becoming ruler of the French nation.  This painting, entitled Gilbert de Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, is now part of the collection of the US House of Representatives in Washington.

When Louis-Philippe came to power in 1830 it marked the zenith of Scheffer’s artistic career.  Scheffer, before the July revolution, had been giving drawing lessons to Louis-Philippe’s children and a great friendship between artist and his pupils blossomed.  Once Louis-Philippe came to power after the 1830 Revolution, Scheffer attained an influential position within the court. Louis-Philippe became the patron of the artist and the Orleans family bought many of Scheffer’s paintings. Scheffer received numerous lucrative commissions for the Musée Historique at Versailles, which Louis-Philippe founded in 1837 and which was situated in the wings of the Palace of Versailles.   The gallery which is one hundred and twenty metres long houses and also includes extensive tables that illustrate the major military events of the history of France.

Princess Marie d'Orléans by Ary Scheffer (1831)
Princess Marie d’Orléans by Ary Scheffer (1831)

Ary Scheffer also completed a number of Royal portraits including one in 1831 of Princess Marie of Orléans the third child and second daughter of Louis-Philippe and his wife Maria Amalia of the Two Sicilies.  She later became the wife of Duke Alexander of Württenberg.  She was the most talented artist of all the Royal children and was constantly encouraged to pursue her love of art and sculpture by Ari Scheffer.  Sadly she died of tuberculosis when she was just twenty-five years old.

Marie Amélie of Naples, Queen of the French by Ary Scheffer (1857)
Marie Amélie of Naples, Queen of the French by Ary Scheffer (1857)

Another member of the he French Royal Family who featured in one of Scheffer’s portraits was Marie-Amalia, the niece of Marie-Antoinette and the wife of Louis-Philippe.  Louis-Philippe had reigned as the French monarch from 1830 when he came to power following the July Revolution and ruled for eighteen years but was deposed in the February 1848 Revolution which resulted in he and his wife, Marie-Amalia living a life in exile in England.

Claremont
Claremont

The couple lived at Claremont, a stately home owned by Leopold of the Belgians, but lent out to Queen Victoria.  In 1850 Louis-Philippe died but his widow remained at Claremont for the rest of her life.   Ary Scheffer visited Claremont in 1857 at which time he completed the portrait of the ex-Queen.   In it we see a frail seventy-five year old lady in mourning.

Death of Géricault by Ary Scheffer (1824)
Death of Géricault by Ary Scheffer (1824)

What persuaded me to feature Ary Scheffer was when I was looking at the death of Théodore Géricault at the young age of thirty-two; I came across a painting entitled The Death of Géricault by today’s featured artist, Ary Scheffer.  It is beautiful work of art which highlights the French Romanticism style, which was so popular at the time.  Look at the man sitting on the chair who was presumably one of Géricault’s close friends.   Look at the way Scheffer has depicted him.  He grasps Géricault’s limp wrist with his right hand whilst he buries his head on his left hand which lies across the back of the chair which he is sitting on.  It is almost a scene from an old silent Hollywood movie or part of an amateur dramatics production.  The physician holds Géricault’s left hand which lies almost lifeless over his heart.  Look at Géricault’s face.  It is sunken.  It is almost skull-like.   In my last blog I featured Géricault’s last self-portrait which was a very disturbing depiction and somebody commented that it could not have been that bad but what we see in Scheffer’s painting is very close to that self-portrait.  This was the end for the great artist.

The Barque of Dante by Eugène Delacroix

The Barque of Dante by Delacroix (1822)

When I first saw today’s featured painting I was immediately reminded of Géricault’s Raft of Medusa, which was My Daily Art Display on June 10th.  There was something about the look of suffering and desperation on the faces of the men on Géricault’s sinking raft that I could see on the faces of Delacroix’s men in today’s painting.  My Daily Art Display today looks at the painting entitled Dante and Virgil in Hell by Eugène Delacroix.  The painting is also known as The Barque of Dante and was painted by the French artist in 1822.   

The painting is based on Canto VIII of the Inferno, the first part of the 14th century epic poem the Divine Comedy written by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri.  The poem is an allegory recording the journey of Dante through Hell along with his guide, the Roman poet Virgil.  According to the poem Hell is made up of nine concentric circles of suffering located within the Earth.  Each circle representing one sin and is the place where those who have committed that sin and who are unrepentant will end up and receive an appropriate punishment.  The sinners of each circle are punished in a fashion befitting their crimes.  Each sinner is made miserable for all of eternity by the key sin they have committed. The circles represent a gradual increase in wickedness, culminating at the centre of the earth, where Satan is held in bondage.

The painting by Delacroix is based on the fifth circle and is all about the sin of Wrath.  The first circle is nominated as Limbo and the people in there have simply never been baptised into the Church.  The ninth circle is Treachery which is looked upon as the most heinous of sins.  I was amused to note that those unfortunates that had committed the sin of Lust were only allocated  the second circle – maybe for a hot blooded Italian, like Dante Alighieri, lust was hardly a sin at all !!!

The Fifth Circle of Hell is the swamp-like water of the river Styx and in its murky waters, the angry people fight each other on the surface, and the morose and brooding people lie gurgling beneath the water. The character in the poem, Phlegyas, the guardian of the river, reluctantly transports Dante and Virgil across the River Styx in his skiff.  This lower part of Hell where the characters in the painting find themselves is the marshy swamp that lies outside the walls of the city of Dis, the City of the Dead, which houses the lower parts of Hell, and which we see burning in the left background of the painting.

Delacroix and Géricault comparison

At the beginning I said I saw a similarity between Géricault’s Raft of Medusa painting and this painting by Delacroix.  I actually managed to find a picture which also highlights the likeness in the facial expression of a man in each work.  The main picture, on the right, is of the man in the left foreground of today’s painting as he lies in the water and shown in the inset we have the face of the man who is in the centre of the Géricault’s raft looking sky-wards.  Go back to my earlier blog on Géricaults painting and see if you agree.  Some three years after Géricault completed his Raft of Medusa painting in 1819, Delacroix completed what was his first major work and one which he exhibited in the 1822 Salon, the art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  The oil on canvas painting which measures 189cms x 246cms now hangs in the Louvre.

Dante is given a steadying hand by Virgil as they falteringly stand up in the boat as it ploughs its way through the choppy water of the River Styx, which is heaving with the tormented souls who have been trapped in this fifth circle of hell for their sins of wrath.  The Neo-Classical style which was prevalent at the time can be seen in the way Delacroix has grouped his figures.  The main characters are set in the centre of the painting whilst the subsidiary figures are painted much lower down on a horizontal plane, each holding a classical pose which gives the artist a chance to concentrate on their musculature.  Look how the artist has depicted the gale-force weather condition the boat party have to endure.  See how Delacroix has depicted the blue garment of Phlegyas as he rows his boat.  Although wrapped around his body it flies wildly in the face of the strong wind which roars in from the left of the painting.  The guardian of the river is using every ounce of his strength as we see the muscles of his broad back ripple as he pulls on the oar.  He seems to be sure-footed as he has made this rough crossing many times.  Dante holds his right arm aloft to try and steady himself against the wind’s ferocity, whilst Virgil takes his other hand in an attempt to steady him against the onslaught.   The boat has slewed around and is a little off course as it tries to reach the fiery City of Death.

Look at the characters in the water.  A couple lay back exhausted whilst the others display the anger and hatred which has conspired to send them to this part of Hell.  Look at the piercing demonic eyes of the man that clings to the front of the boat and the staring rage of the man in the water in the right foreground as he seems to be attacking another with his teeth as his adversary grips him by the back of his neck.

The head and demonic face by Delacroix

Look carefully at the man clinging to the gunwale on the far side of the small boat.  See how the muscles and sinews in his arm are almost at breaking point as he tries to heave himself on board.  His reddened eyes are demonic.  It is a frightening depiction of a face and Delacroix admitted that it was his best depiction of a head in the painting.

I am interested to look at the contrast in expressions between our two main characters, Dante and Virgil.  Whereas Dante has a look of horror and fear on his face, Virgil’s facial expression is one of calm and tranquillity as if he is completely detached from what is going on around him. There is also a stark contrast of colours used by Delacroix.  Dante’s red cowl and the fiery inferno of Hell in the background is in sharp contrast to the blue of Phlegyas’ flowing blue robe.

There is such raw emotion in this painting.  We are looking at a world of insanity.  We see before us the rage of angry men who have yet to come to terms with their fate.  We almost wrap our arms around ourselves to protect us from the storm we view and this fifth circle – the circle of Wrath.  Delacroix had worked non-stop for very long hours for nearly three months to have this painting ready for the April opening of The Salon in 1822 and by the time he had completed this work he was totally exhausted.  The work was exhibited with the title:

“…Dante et Virgile conduits par Phlégias, traversent le lac qui entoure les murailles de la ville infernale de Dité…”

Which translated was:

“Dante and Virgil led by Phlegyas, across the lake surrounding the infernal city walls of Dis”

But later came to be known as its present title The Barque of Dante.  The painting received mainly favourable reviews and a few months later it was bought by the French State for 2000 Francs and it was housed in the Musée du Luxembourg but in 1874 transferred to its present location, The Louvre.

The Raft of Medusa by Théodore Géricault

The Raft of Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1819)

My Daily Art Display today features one of the most moving paintings I have come across and what makes it even more remarkable is that it is based on a true story.  The massive oil on canvas painting is entitled The Raft of Medusa and was painted by the French Romantic painter, Théodore Géricault in 1819.  Before I look at the painting let me go through the actual events which this painting is based upon.

The story begins on June 17, 1816 with the new Bourbon government of France dispatching the frigates Medusa, Loire and Echo and the brig Argus to officially receive the British handover of the port of Saint-Louis in Senegal to France.  The British who having helped to re-establish the French monarchy, wanted to demonstrate their support for Louis XVIII, and decided to hand over to him this strategic trading port on the West African coast.  The French naval frigate, Medusa was to carry 365 crew and passengers, including the Senegal’s governor-designate, Colonel Julien-Désire Schmaltz, from Port de Rochefort on the island of Aix on France’s west coast, to Senegal via Tenerife.

The captain of the Medusa was Vicomte Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys, who at the age of 53 had spent most of his career behind a desk at customs offices and had never been in command of a ship, in fact had hardly sailed on a ship for twenty years.  However,  the old adage “it’s who you know and not what you know” was applicable in his being put in command of the fleet as he had many Royalist connections.  The governor-designate Schmaltz wanted to reach St Louis as soon as possible and persuaded the captain to set a course close to the shore line in order to save time.  Things went badly almost from the start of the voyage when a young cabin boy was lost over the side.  Captain Chaumereys also had problems with both his passengers and crew alike, spending long periods arguing with them

The Medusa was a fast vessel and in fact much faster than the other vessels in the group and soon pulled ahead of them which was to be a contributing factor in the forthcoming disaster and terrible loss of life.  On July 2nd, for some reason, whether due to poor navigation skills or lack of attention the Medusa, was many miles off course and  ran aground on the Arguin Banks, which lie off the west coast of Mauritania, despite perfect weather conditions and calm seas.  The grounding ripped a hole in the hull of the Medusa and after surveying the damage it was deemed un-repairable and terminal.  Couple this factor along with deteriorating weather conditions and the crew had no choice but to abandon the vessel.  The Medusa had some lifeboats but they would hold only 150 people and so it was decided to construct a raft to house the rest

The crew then set to work making a raft from parts of the Medusa’s decking and masts.  When completed the raft measured 65 feet by 23 feet and was towed behind two of the ship’s lifeboats.  In all, one hundred and fifty people, including one woman, boarded the raft.  However with such weight the raft became almost submerged and it was decided to jettison some of the food.  After doing this the deck of the raft settled in the water with what they believed to be a suitable clearance above the sea surface.  The lifeboats towing their raft set off from the crippled Medusa but the weight of the raft was becoming problematic.  The only propulsion of this raft was from the rowing power of the men in the lifeboats which was towing it,as the raft had no oars, no sails and no navigational aids.

For some unknown reason, whether it be that the people on the raft decided that their lives would be safer if they disengaged from the lifeboats or whether those in the lifeboat believed that the raft was jeopardising their safety, the towing line was severed and the raft was set free, some four miles off the coast of Mauretania.  By the second day, three of the passengers had committed suicide and that following night the store of rum aboard the raft was broached and in a drunken insurrection by the soldiers against their officers, mayhem ensued.  By daylight the next day the number of people alive on the raft had more than halved to sixty.  Food had run out and the survivors resorted to eating the corpses.

On July 1th 1816, after 13 days adrift, the raft by pure chance was rescued by the Argus, as no specific search effort was made by the French for the raft.   At this time only 15 men were still alive; the others had been killed or thrown overboard by their comrades,  Some had died of starvation, and some had thrown themselves into the sea in despair.

The whole episode was a disaster, not only to those who sailed on the Medusa but for the French government and when the ship’s surgeon Savigny submitted a report on the incident, it was leaked to an anti-government newspaper, the Journal des débats,  which caused outrage.  The French government had tried hard to suppress the details.  The French nation was horrified.  The event became an international scandal, partly because of the human disaster and partly because the disaster was generally attributed to the incompetence of the French captain, whom people believed was acting under the authority of the recently restored French monarchy.  However in reality, King Louis XVIII had no say in the captain’s appointment, since, then as now, monarchs were not directly involved in appointments made to vessels like a naval frigate.   Captain de Chamereys was found to blame for the incident and was court-martialed.

This painting by Géricault was his first major work of art and is now housed in the Louvre in Paris.    What strikes you first when you stand in front of this painting is its enormous size, measuring 16 feet by 24 feet.  We, the viewers, are dwarfed by its enormity, which gives the painting more power.  Strangely enough nobody commissioned the work but the artist believed that the incident he was portraying would generate great interest from the public and in so doing he believed his career would take off.   Géricault spent much time in preparing for this painting doing numerous sketches.  He interviewed the ship’s doctor, Henri Savigny and the ship’s geographer, Alexander Corréard  and he even constructed a detailed scale model of the raft.  He would have models pose on his constructed raft .  His friend, the artist Delacroix, modelled for the figure in the foreground, with face turned downward and one arm outstretched.  His young assistant Louis-Alexis Jamar modelled nude for the dead man in the foreground, who is about to slip into the sea.  In his desire to depict accurately the bodies of the survivors and the dead he made many visits to morgues and hospitals noting details with regards the texture and colouring of flesh on live bodies and corpses.  Géricault had been correct in his assessment that the painting would prove popular if somewhat controversial.  It appeared in the 1819 Paris Salon and for the artist it launched his career and, although it was partly a history painting, it was looked upon as the beginning of the Romantic Movement in French painting.

The painting portrays the moment in time when the survivors on board the raft spot the approaching ship, Argus, which can just be seen on the whitened horizon.  It is at this very point in time that the survivors realise that they are about to be rescued.  An African crewman, said to be Jean Charles, can be seen standing on a cask waiving his shirt to attract the crew of the Argus.  This portrayal of a negro at the pinnacle of the painting was probably down to Géricault’s abolitionist’s sympathies.  The majority of the figures depicted in this enormous painting are life-size and the bodies of the men in the foreground are almost twice life-size.  Their closeness to the edge of the canvas  makes us almost believe we are just a step away from the raft itself.  The raft has suffered from the battering it endured in the rough seas and is barely afloat.  The painting is dark and sombre which Géricault chose to suggest the torment and agony of the survivors.

In some ways it is an idealised painting as in actuality, there are more people shown on the raft than were found by the Argus and at the time of the rescue of the castaways, the sea was recorded as being calm and the weather settled.  However to add feeling to the painting he has allowed the seas to be whipped up high in a frenzy of surf under blackened storm clouds.  One must also query the fact that some of the men seem so “muscled” and somewhat healthy despite having starved for such a length of time and barely kept alive.  It is a combination of history painting, recording the story of the men’s plight and a painting of the Romanticism genre.

There is a moody darkness about the painting.  There is a strong diagonal surge from the bottom left of the painting to the top right.  Our eyes move along the diagonal from viewing the despondent man with his head in hand in the bottom left to the man arm waving his shirt in the upper right.  As we stare in disbelief at the scene in front of us, we sympathise with the plight of these men.

Géricault must have been fully aware when he submitted the work to the Paris Salon that it would prove controversial as the demise of the Medusa and terrible loss of life was blamed on the Bourbon government and so whether the painting was acclaimed or condemned depended a a great deal on whether the viewer was pro or anti Bourbon.