David to Delacroix: The Rise of Romantic Mythology

By Dorothy Johnson | Go to book overview

1
Eros and the Origins of Art
Girodet’s Mythic Meditations

Imagination is the core of desire.
—ANNE CARSON, Eros the Bittersweet

At the 1793 Salon in Paris, Anne-Louis Girodet exhibited The Sleep of Endymion (plate 4), a work that catapulted him from the status of student artist to accomplished master. As has often been noted, observers of the time marveled at the artist’s ability to transform an academic requirement for the male academy nude into a tour de force in a brilliant mythological painting that enthralled the viewers of the period and set a new standard for innovation in visualizing myth. If David’s Loves of Paris and Helen announced a new path for mythic representation to follow, Girodet’s Endymion built upon this momentum and took it to the next level. During a period of revolutionary tumult and social and political upheaval, the success of Endymion confirmed the extraordinary hold of myth on the popular imagination. The mythological momentum that had been building in the preceding decades was not interrupted or even slowed down by the Revolution. In fact, in some ways the Revolution seems to have provided intensified energy for written and visual meditations on myth. We certainly see this in the case of Girodet.

To a greater extent than most of his peers, Girodet was obsessed with myth. He was particularly fascinated with the role of eros and desire. Girodet’s mythological production was vast, and he sought to enrich the iconography of myth through continual innovations, as manifested in numerous paintings as well as in a large body of drawings, studies, and oil sketches.1 A considerable number were directly related to his lifelong project of illustrating the ancient poets, whose works he translated into French himself.2 His compositions for Didot’s edition of Virgil in the early 1790s launched him in this direction. While working on the Didot compositions as a student in Rome, he was likely inspired by John Flax

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David to Delacroix: The Rise of Romantic Mythology
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