David to Delacroix: The Rise of Romantic Mythology

By Dorothy Johnson | Go to book overview

Conclusion
The Continuum of Myth

Today, thinking about myth involves, first, recognizing and to some extent
succumbing to the fascination that mythology and its imaginary representations con-
tinue, as always, to exert upon us and upon the history of our most intimate thinking.

—MARCEL DETIENNE, The Writing of Orpheus: Greek Myth in Cultural Context

In his 1765 essay, “Mythologie,” for the Encyclopédie, we remember that Louis de Jaucourt wrote the following about the classical deities: “I know they are chimerical figures, but the role they play in the writings of ancient poets and the frequent allusions by modern poets have almost made them real for us. Our eyes are so familiar with them that we have trouble thinking of them as imaginary beings.”1 As we have seen, a major goal of many artists of the period from David to Delacroix was to bring the imaginary figures of the mythic past into psychological proximity to their audience and, at the same time, to capture the enchantment of the magical, mysterious world of the mythic imagination. We have seen that mythology took on new life in French art of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Mythical beings lived again in the visual arts because they brought us knowledge about ourselves, revealing truths of eros and desire, youth and young love, the relationship of self-identity to sexual identity, and the mysterious nature of suffering and death, as well as of extreme psychological states that could lead to depression, suicide, and murder. This period, as we have seen, witnessed the flourishing of Romantic mythology, a development that has tended to be overshadowed by the advent of French Romanticism’s other venues, in history painting, for example, with its overt political content related to the rapid change of regime—of the Revolution, the Republic, the Napoleonic Empire, and the Restoration.

Chapter 4 dealt with extreme psychological states that led to suicide and infanticide, but I would like to conclude this study by reminding us

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