Saturday, May 17, 2008

One Part Marzipan, One Part Cloud

Gerome Cock Fight
Cockfight by Jean Leon Gerome, 1846

Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean Leon Gerome, ca. 1890

One part marzipan, one part cloud, the flesh tones of the French academic painters seem to derive from the humanist idealism of the previous century, particularly the ideal of human nature aglow with the pure light of reason.

The alabaster whiteness of the caucasian skin is also a reminder that the nineteenth century was a century of colonial imperialism, during which many racist stereotypes took shape--for one, the ethereality of white womanhood.

Gerome's paintings are typical in bathing classical (Greek) themes and myths in clear Parisian light--and toying with naturalist eroticism behind delicately concealing poses--in much the way A+F catalogs now carefully balance American adolescent sex frenzy and American puritanical sex phobia.

In England, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood took up the same themes--with comparable results.

Relegated to the status of "kitsch" by the end of the century, namely by admirers of Manet's and Monet's impressionism, French academicism was to painting what Italian opera was to music--elegantly theatrical, flamboyantly colorful, tragically romantic, naively erotic.

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