Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767-1824) was, first and foremost, a man. It is not unusual for French men to have combined first names that include women's names, the most common being Marie or Anne. At least in the past these were related to the calendar of saints' days. Exhibition notes from the Art Institute of Chicago characterize Girodet as a Romantic rebel:
Profoundly shaped by the dramatic social and
political upheaval brought about by the French Revolution, Girodet
early on broke free from his mentor Jacques-Louis David's influence and
veered away from the rigid Neoclassical style then prevalent in France.
He interpreted his subjects in an evocative and dreamlike manner, often
adding a strange, erotic charge. Increasingly he explored themes of a
more Romantic nature, taking up subjects that involved irrational
emotions and the exotic.
Jean-Baptiste Belley was born in Senegal in 1746 or 1747. He was sold into slavery at the age of two and transported to Santo Domingo, where he eventually purchased his own freedom. In a review of C. A. Bayly's Birth of the Modern World,which features Belley's portrait on the cover, Catherine Hall writes:
Jean Baptiste Belley was one of the three representatives of the
French colonies elected in San Domingue in 1793. Taken from his
native Senegalese island to the Caribbean and enslaved, he had fought
with Toussaint L'Ouverture and then joined the French revolutionary
army. He spoke in the debate in the Convention in 1794, when a unanimous
decision was taken to abolish slavery, and returned to San Domingue
after losing his seat in 1797. He is lost from the historical records
in the subsequent struggles of Haitians against the Napoleonic army,
which was attempting to reinstate slavery.
Jean-Baptiste Belley is leaning against the bust of Guillaume Thomas Francois Raynal (1713-1796), a minor Enlightenment philosophe who associated with the likes of Diderot. Raynal was a strong opponent of slavery.
I have read a number of interpretations of Girodet's painting, but I haven't yet found one I liked. In In and Out of Slavery, for example, Nicholas Mirzoeff writes:
It is a remarkable evocation
of the tensions of the period expressed through one person’s body.
Belley stands against a tropical landscape, wearing the uniform of a Convention member. His face is rendered in the traditional three-quarter style used for nobles and monarchs.
At the same time, his body has an unusual twist to the hips, giving it a somewhat feminine feel. His masculinity is nonetheless asserted by a prominent bulge in his trousers.
Belley rests on a bust of the abbé Raynal, who had called for the abolition of slavery. The marble whiteness of the bust and its classical straight forehead contrast with Belley’s dark skin and a prominently sloped forehead. In the period, this cranial angle, as it was called, was taken as a mark of low intelligence. How should this portrait be understood? The simple fact that an African was painted in the royal style by a European artist marks a remarkable shift, while the various markers placed on his body by the artist tried to assert a new form of superiority: that of race.
Good Lord, where to begin?I think we can start with the assumption that Girodet was a sufficiently competent portraitist to be able to render a proper likeness of a specific human being, and furthermore that he had probably had a pretty good look at Belley at some point. Might he not have sat for the portrait? So any question of how black his skin appears, how white his eyes are, and how sloped or unsloped his forehead might be could very well be attributed to the fact that this was what Belley actually looked like. There is no reason to assume that Girodet was fantasizing or making up features and skin tones to suit himself.
But even so, let's take a close look at that suspicious cranial angle. It seems to me that although Belley's forehead is set slightly back from his brow ridge (as foreheads often are), it then rises pretty straight up until it reaches the point where the hairline starts to recede. Just put your finger over the top of Belley's forehead where hairline should be, cover up the bald skull, and you'll see what I mean. I think the "prominent slope" of the forehead that Mirzoeff thinks he sees is really the slope of the bald skull. In fact, the main difference between the shape of Belley's head and the shape of Raynal's is created by the wave of Belley's hair. Raynal only seems to have a higher forehead than Belley because, first, the bust is larger than life size, and, second, it is completely bald. I would even go so far as to say that Girodet is deliberately pointing out the similarity of the underlying structures beneath the contrasting colors. Just look at the noses, the cheekbones and the jawlines. These men could be brothers if they were the same color, and I think this is exactly what Girodet intended.
There is nothing either peculiar or feminine about Belley's stance. He is leaning against the pedestal, which causes his left hip to jut out. It's the sort of stance Byron would be at home in -- suave, informal, pensive, gazing into the distance in thought. The fact that Belley is relaxing on the pedestal and looking away from the bust is highly significant. Also, notice how close Belley's head is to the bust of Raynal. Former slaves were traditionally pictured as groveling at the feet of their liberators, not lounging familiarly alongside them thinking their own thoughts. Once again, Girodet is making a radical statement of fraternity despite the difference in skin color. He is not showing Belley as somehow inferior to Raynal. In fact, it would be very easy to make just the opposite argument. There is Raynal staring blindly ahead with his empty, stone stare -- not even a suggestion of an iris or pupil carved into the eyeballs. And there alongside him is Belley, with an iris that is so black against the corneal whiteness. How can you miss the message that Raynal's time is past and the future belongs to Belley? Only if you want to see racism and paternalism where none exists.
Girodet is known for the eroticism of his paintings, and there is certainly an erotic element in Belley's languid pose, but the fact that he is wearing extremely tight breeches and displaying a generous amount of marriage tackle only means that he is fashionable, not that he is a symbol of primal sexuality. Men wore their breeches tight in the French Revolutionary period (called the Regency in England) and they were not in the least shy about showing their genitals. Tailors cut the breeches with a little extra give either on the right or the left, depending on whether the gentleman "dressed" to the right or the left. (Belley obviously dressed to the right, whereas Napoleon, as portrayed by Girodet's mentor, David, dressed to the left -- see below.) This is about the time when the Prince Albert piercing became popular. It involved putting a ring through the edge of the glans in order to attach a cord for tying the penis in place so no unseemly activity caused the gentleman to dress to the middle.
The pants, in other words, are perfectly consistent with the rest of Belley's clothing. They are the height of fashion. He is decidedly dressed for success.
This glorious Edo Period (18th century) tiger painting by Jakuchu Ito has something in common with most other tiger paintings of the time -- it doesn't look all that much like a tiger (especially the eyes, which are quite cartoonish) because there were very few tigers available for viewing in Japan:
It is true that during
the latter half of the Edo period a tiger could be seen if one traveled
to Nagasaki. It had become a sideshow attraction during the Bunkyu era (1861-1863)
[Misemono kenkyu, Dobutsu torai monogatari]. However, it was highly unlikely
that a tiger could be seen in the Kyoto-Osaka area during the mid- Edo period. (Kono).
Still, tigers were a very important theme in Japanese art, and many Japanese artists were committed to portraying them as accurately as possible. They dealt with the problem in a couple of different ways. An inscription on Jakuchu's painting explains that, due to lack of tigers, the artist chose to copy a Chinese painting:
When it comes to painting material
phenomena, I cannot paint it but from truth. Because there are no ferocious
tigers in Japan, I have imitated Mao Yi and copied his work. (Kono)
Other artists adopted a different technique:
Maruyama Okyo had acquired a tiger's pelt and sketched it from life, while
Ganku had obtained a tiger's head and used the studio name of "Pavilion
of the Tiger's Head (Kotokan)." (Kono)
The problem with tiger skins, however, is that they don't have tigers inside them. JDP writes:
Japanese artists have seen tiger skins. Their problems arise from trying
to round this skin into a living animal. In the course of doing so, the
skin around the eye sockets shrinks outward making the eyes appear huge,
the ears shrink in and usually become tiny, the nose becomes flat, and the
paws huge. The overall disposition or character of the animal is always
dependent upon the imagination of the artist.
JDP's description of the stuffed tiger-skin model conforms very neatly to the Jakuchu painting which was copied from the Chinese original. This makes me wonder if the original Chinese artist worked from a stuffed skin to begin with.
The "first kangaroo" portrayed by a British artist was "rounded out" in a similar manner.
This is Jean Fouquet's Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, painted in 1450, on wood. The shapes and colors are absolute magic. Bibliotheque Nationale de France has an online exhibit, both in English and in French, that provides excellent coverage of Fouquet's life, work, and influence. This geometrical study is fascinating, and really helps to show the genius behind Fouquet's work:
Which vice or virtue does this painting by Titian (1490-1576) represent? Your choice of vices include: pride, anger, sloth, lust, avarice, envy, and gluttony. The virtues are fortitude, justice, prudence, and temperance.
The answer, which JWebb got right, is the virtue of prudence. I guessed anger when I first saw it, but here's an explanation of the symbolism from an interesting website on memory systems by Christopher Kelty at Rice:
In Medieval Christian philosophy there are
four Virtues: Fortitude, Justice, Temperance, Prudence. It
is Prudence that commands our attention, because this is
the place of memoria. Within prudence, Medieval
Scholars included memoria, intelligentia and
providentia. A famous painting by
Titian (1565) portrays the allegory of prudence with the
heads of three men (an old man for memory, a middle aged
bearded man for the present and young man for the future)
and three animals (a wolf who has already devoured the
past, a lion representing the uncertain present, and a
"fawning dog" representing the future). Aquinas explains
that it is only by looking carefully upon past things that
we can be rightly directed to present and future things,
hence Prudence, the opposite of imprudence-- of risk.
Certainty comes from Memory and the proper organization of
words and images. Such a temporal understanding of memory
is crucial for the development of methods of scientific
experiment since it makes sensible the notion of
'probability' or uncertainty as a function of knowledge.
The inscription on the painting is: EX PRAETERITO PRAESENS PRVDENTER AGIT NI FUTUR- ACTIONE DETVRPET [From
the past the man of the present acts prudently so as not to imperil the
An enso is a circle that forms an important theme in Japanese art:
Enso range in shape from perfectly symmetrical to completely
lopsided and in brushstroke (sometimes two brushstrokes) from thin and
delicate to thick and massive. Most paintings have an accompanying
inscription that gives the viewer a "hint" regarding the ultimate
meaning of a particular Zen circle. The primary types of enso are: (1) Mirror enso: a simple circle, free of an accompanying inscription, leaving everything to the insight of the viewer.
(2) Universe enso: a circle that represents the cosmos (modern physics also postulates curved space).
(3) Moon enso: the full moon, clear and bright, silently illuminating all beings without discrimination, symbolizes Buddhist enlightenment.
(4) Zero enso: in addition to being curved, time and space are "empty," yet they give birth to the fullness of existence.
(5) Wheel enso: everything is subject to change, all life revolves in circles.
(6)Sweet cake enso:
Zen circles are profound but they are not abstract, and when
enlightenment and the acts of daily life-"sipping tea and eating rice
cakes"-are one, there is true Buddhism.
(7) "What is this?" enso: the most frequently used inscription
on Zen circle paintings, this is a pithy way of saying, "Don't let
others fill your head with theories about Zen; discover the meaning for
yourself!" -- Shambala Zen Art Gallery