David to Delacroix: The Rise of Romantic Mythology

By Dorothy Johnson | Go to book overview

Introduction
David and the Rise of Romantic Mythology

The devotee of myth is in a way a philosopher,
for myth is made up of things that cause wonder.
—ARISTOTLE, Metaphysics, I, 982b 18–19

In this book we will explore a phenomenon that merits further attention, the rise of Romantic mythology in French art.1 Romantic mythology in the visual arts was a pan-European movement, but mythic subject matter played a particularly prepotent role in French art during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The fascination with myth and its meanings that developed during the eighteenth century in the domain of literature as well as the visual arts intensified circa 1800 in France. Vast numbers of new mythological images were created in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries and can be found in virtually every arena of the visual arts—from large-scale mythological paintings and sculptures exhibited at the Salons to smaller-scale paintings and statuettes, drawings, prints, and book illustrations (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example, enjoyed a popularity verging on mania and went through many illustrated editions). The built environment equally abounded in mythological subjects, which adorned tapestries, furniture, and objects of various types and functions—porcelain, table decoration, and even wallpaper.2 By 1800, depictions of mythic figures could be found everywhere, from the world of the powerful and elite to the domain of the bourgeoisie.

In France during this period, we encounter a great enthusiasm for and engagement with myth, which was widespread and entered many levels of French culture and society. Earlier in the eighteenth century, in accord with a perdurable European tradition, mythology had been an integral part of the privileged world of the king and court. Louis XIV’s selfidentification with Apollo had famously demonstrated that mythological

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