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: Girodet's New Danaë: The Iconography of a Scandal


George Levitine



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The history of Girodet's New Danaë is rooted in the most famous Salon scandal of the end of the 18th century: no other work of this painter has ever inspired such a quantity of gossip, Salon articles, and pamphlet writing.1Initially, the controversy arose with Girodet's execution of a portrait of Anne-Françoise-Elisabeth Lange (1772-1825), one of the most successful actresses of the Directoire. She was renowned for her talent, her beauty, and her wealthy lovers. Exhibited in the Salon of 1799, the portrait received favorable comments from the critics; but it was derided by the landscape painter Hubert Robert and other friends of Mademoiselle Lange for its alleged lack or resemblance, and, more probably, because of its lack of flattery. Needless to say, these disparaging remarks were immediately repeated to Girodet. Envenoming the situation, the actress insultingly offered to pay only twenty-five of the fifty louis agreed upon for the portrait. Furthermore, writing to Girodet, she characterized the painting as a work “qui, dit-on, n'y peut rien pour votre gloire et qui compromettrait ma réputation de beauté.”2 She also asked the artist to remove the portrait from the Salon, within twenty-four hours. Bitterly offended, the painter complied with her request, tore the portrait into four pieces, and had the fragments, wrapped in a towel, brought to the actress by a custodian of the Museum. To complete his revenge, Girodet spent fifteen days painting The New Danaë which was sent to the same Salon of 1799, in the original frame of Mademoiselle Lange's destroyed portrait. Although exhibited only two days, The New Danaë created great stir. It is echoed in a contemporary engraving of Naudet, which shows Girodet directing the hanging of his painting in the Salon, before the eyes of excited onlookers.The New Danaë is a roman à clef. It is not easy to decipher it, and even the critics of 1799 disagreed on the meaning of some details of its cryptic allegory. Admittedly, certain elements of its iconography are derived from the corresponding Ovidian myth: one readily identifies the familiar figure of Danaë, holding a mirror, and receiving Jupiter's shower of gold with the assistance of two Cupid-like children. However, the classical myth cannot account for the incredible accumulation of heterogeneous details crowded into the composition.A contemporary article of the Journal du Mois suggests a possible approach to the study of the painting. Speaking of The New Danaë, its writer states that in this picture, Mademoiselle Lange is expiating her past and her present behavior.3It would appear that the meaning of Girodet's work can be understood only in the light of certain incidents of the actress's not so private life. Three names stand out among Mademoiselle Lange's admirers, at the time of the execution of The New Danaë: Leuthrop Beauregard, a rich winegrower of Corbigny; Hoppé, a successful speculator from Hamburg; and Michel-Jean Simons, a wealthy banker and army contractor. Having lost his fortune and in difficulty with the police, Beauregard was rejected by Mademoiselle Lange and was replaced by Hoppé who fathered her daughter, Palmyre. Upon his separation from the actress, Hoppé gave her two hundred thousand livres for the education of their child, on the condition that she would abandon her theatrical career. After accepting the money, the actress returned to the stage, and the outraged Hoppé brought the case to court, claiming the guardianship of Palmyre. Meanwhile, Mademoiselle Lange's life became further complicated by her prospective marriage with Michel-Jean Simons. Displaying a thoroughly middle class mentality, the bridegroom's father, Jean Simons, a prosperous coach-maker from Brussels, came to Paris in order to prevent this union with a comedienne. However, upon his arrival, he fell in love with Mademoiselle Lange's colleague, the actress Julie Candeille.4 Under these circumstances, the previous objections were forgotten, and Simons father and Simons son married respectively Candeille and Lange (1797). Widely publicized through gossip literature, this vaudeville-like background provides a key to the mysterious iconography of the painting.Unquestionably, the principal figure of The New Danaë represents Mademoiselle Lange herself. All the contemporary critics agreed that the likeness was striking, a fact which, to a degree, may be verified in an earlier portrait by Colson. The naked Danaë-Lange is staged as a lowly harlot. She is wearing peacock feathers of vanity, but she is seated on a coarse blanket spread over a shaky pallet, steadied with a brick. She is holding a broken mirror which suggests her inability to see herself as she really is—an allusion to her rejection of Girodet's first portrait. The chronology of the actress's amours can supply a useful order for an iconographic discussion of the various figures, animals, and objects which surround Danaë.Under the pallet lurks a head (or a mask) which probably alludes to Leuthrop Beauregard. The coin, caught in the lower eyelid and hiding the right eye, suggests a play on words, so typical at the time: Girodet refers onomatopoeically to the name Leuthrop Beauregard (le trop beau regard, that is, the too beautiful glance). The greediness, indicated by the coin, and the lewd, satyr-like face underline the character of a man who was a notorious agioteur and who was reputed to have paid, at one time, ten thousand livres for twelve hours of the actress's affection. The head's oversized horns have an obvious connotation of cuckoldry, and the ruinous effect of Mademoiselle Lange's love is intimated by the snail feeding on the vine-leaves, Beauregard's original source of wealth as a winegrower. Finally, his misfortune and his ultimate rejection by the actress are stressed by the very location of the head, relegated to the shadow of the pallet, almost like a discarded hunting trophy.The Cupid-like figure helping Danaë-Lange to gather the coins falling into the drapery can be identified as the actress's daughter, Palmyre. This interpretation is based on the fact that the painter replaced one of the two traditional male Cupids accompanying Danaë by a girl, with a fashionable headdress adorned with peacock feathers, who wears the same earrings as Mademoiselle Lange. The protective, motherly gesture of the actress and the action of the child helping her to receive the coins are a direct reference to the two hundred thousand livres given by Hoppé to Mademoiselle Lange for a the education of Palmyre.The turkey cock, on the left of the picture, was often identified by contemporary critics as representing the husband of the actress. They even spoke of the actual resemblance of the bird to Michel-Jean Simons. This identification is confirmed by the ring displayed on one of the bird's toes. Girodet evidently emphasized the usual association of the turkey with stupidity and vanity. He elaborated this idea through the action of a boy-Cupid,5 seen behind the bird, who is busily replacing its feathers by those of a peacock. The ludicrous character of the beguiled, plucked, and flattered turkey-Simons is further stressed by his air of pompous complacency.Turkey-Simons has dropped a flaming torch from his claws. Lost in an amorous contemplation of his wife, he does not realize that this flame, which probably alludes to his criticism of Girodet's first portrait of Mademoiselle Lange, is igniting the scroll of Plautus' Asinaria.6 The classical comedy tells of a young man asking his father to finance his love for a courtesan. The father agrees, with the disgraceful stipulation that he, himself, would spend one day with her. It may be seen that Girodet used the theme suggested by the scroll of Asinaria as a particularly degrading innuendo concerning the relationship of the two Simons with Mademoiselle Lange.7 Thus, by showing the torch of Michel-Jean Simons' unjust criticism igniting Plautus' manuscript, the painter implies that the actress's husband was himself responsible for kindling the satire of Mademoiselle Lange's private life. In the painting the smoke of the burning Asinaria invades the room, and its heat is already felt by Danaë-Lange who seems to draw back her right foot. Still another allusion to the marriage of the actress can be found in a yoke, placed beside her on the pallet. One white dove, with a broken wing, lies dead, killed by a coin from the shower of gold. This dove is attached to the yoke by a collar on which one can read the inscription fidelitas. Another dove, with the inscription constantia, tears its bond and flies away from the yoke. It is clear that Girodet did his utmost to underline the lack of faithfulness and constancy in Mademoiselle Lange's marital life.The remaining elements of the painting, while not directly referring to any particular affair of the actress, further characterize the nature of her amorous career. On the right side of the picture, behind Danaë's left arm, one can see a small statue of Abundance8 mounted on a slender column. Abundance is conceived as a household divinity, the tutelary goddess of Mademoiselle Lange. A small votive flame burns before the statue, on the base of which one reads:BONAE SPEI
[SACRED TO GOOD HOPE AND THE HOUSEHOLD GODS]The meaning of the inscription is strengthened by the anchor of hope, hanging from the base of the statue. Mademoiselle Lange's faith in her tutelary goddess is not deceived: a mouse, climbing up the column, and numerous moths—obviously representing the actress's admirers—come to burn themselves at the sacred fire. Analogous themes of luring and snaring are repeated with a cobweb, in the upper left of the picture, and a rat caught in a trap, under the pallet, next to Beauregard's head. It appears that the actress's victims are confined to a low category of animals, such as nocturnal insects, flies, mice, and rats. The heads of stags with prominent horns, decorating the coins of the shower of gold, make Girodet's message unmistakable.In fitting his New Danaë into the frame intended for his first portrait of Mademoiselle Lange, Girodet replaced the four original allegorical medallions “inspirés par le talent et la beauté du modèle” with satirical emblems.9 The medallion on the upper left of the frame shows a quotation from Horace's De Arte Poetica (v.4):DESINIT IN PISCEM
[A LOVELY WOMAN ON THE TOP ENDS IN A FISH BELOW]Girodet actualized the meaning of the quotation by changing Horace's “desinat,” the present of the subjunctive, in to “desinit,” the present of the indicative. The inscription is illustrated with the emblem of duplicity in love: a siren with a bifurcated fish tail, holding a mirror.The medallion on the upper right continues the same quotation from the De Arte Poetica (v. 5):RISUM TENEATIS
[ARE YOU SUPPRESSING A LAUGH, FRIENDS?]Above the inscription, one can see a strange creature combining the head and neck of an ostrich, the tail of a turkey, the palmate feet of an aquatic bird, and the breast of a woman. The upper part of this being is supplemented by two opposed, Janus-like masculine heads, one of them adorned with the horns of a ram. This composite monster is ridden by a squirrel driving it with a whip. Generally inspired by the beginning of the De Arte Poetica10 this allegory repeats, once more, the satirical themes inspired by Mademoiselle Lange. The head of the ostrich refers to the actress's voracity; the tail of the turkey signifies her stupidity; and the palmate feet refer to her swampy origins. The head with the ram-horns probably alludes to Mademoiselle Lange's husband, while the other head, which suggests an older man, presumably portrays the father Simons. Finally, the squirrel driving the beast symbolized the agility with which the actress dominated the two Simons.The medallion on the lower left represents butterflies, some of which are attracted by flowers and others by gold. This image, referring again, to the cupidity of Mademoiselle Lange, is a free interpretation of a quotation from Virgil's Eclogues (II, v. 65) inscribed in the lower part of the medallion:TRAHIT SUA QUEMQUE
[EACH MAN'S DESIRE LEADS HIM ON]The last medallion on the lower right ridicules the actress's pretension to fame. Girodet based his satire on illustration of La Fontaine's fable: La Grenouille qui veut se faire aussi grosse que le boeuf, ironically contrasted with motto of Louis XIV:NEC PLURIBUS
[NOT INFERIOR TO MOST]Most of Girodet's iconography is based on a reinterpretation of well-known sources. Needless to say, the satirical implications of the Danaë theme had already been exploited in classical times by authors, such as Martial.11 Similarly, many other elements of The Danaë are of the most traditional kind. It is hardly surprising that Girodet, one of the contributors to Noël's Dictionnaire de la Fable,12 borrowed a number of emblematic attributes from the iconologies of Ripa and Cochin, as in the case of the personifications of Abundance and of Duplicity, the yoke, the turkey, the peacock, and the ostrich. Several other images, such as the squirrel, the horns, the cobweb, the rat-trap, and the moths burning themselves at a flame, have an evident folkloric origin. However, this familiar iconographic vocabulary is inventively rearranged by the artist. His use of visual puns, creation of composite creatures, animalizing of human forms, and humanizing of animals echoes the gongoristic excesses of the painter's friend, the poet Delille, as well as the studied preciosities of the late 18th-century logogriphs and caricatures.13 Without a key, Girodet's agglomeration of emblematic subtleties creates the effect of a puzzle. The intriguing charm of The New Danaë is derived from the fact that, as in some 20th-century Surrealistic paintings, this puzzle is expressed through realistic, quasi-illusionistic images immersed in a strangely unreal and warm, aquarium-like atmosphere. This is the very quality one finds in Girodet's other works of the same period, such as the Danaë of Leipzig (1798), the Seasons of Aranjuez (1801-1802), and the Ossian of La Malmaison (1801-1802).According to the Biographie Michaud, The New Danaë had very serious consequences for Mademoiselle Lange who, overcome with humiliation, was forced to abandon her theatrical career. As a result, she contracted an illness for which a trip to Italy was prescribed; but her condition grew worse, and she died in Tuscany around 1825. The New Danaë inspired caricaturists and added some prominence to Girodet's name in Parisian fashionable circles. However, it also provoked a great number of attacks, accusing him of greed and of lack of taste. In his poem, Le Peintre, Girodet tried to justify the artist's right to satire:Dans leur juste courroux, ses pinceaux irrités
Vengeront son honneur et sa gloire insultés.14Nevertheless, it is certain that he experienced a measure of remorse—he hid his New Danaë and refused to show it even to his most intimate friends.George Levitine is professor and head of the Art Department of the University of Maryland. A specialist in French art of the 18th and 19th centuries, he is at present engaged in research centered on the problems of Romanticism. He is a frequent contributor to many learned journals; his most recent articles include: “Quelques aspects peu connus de Girodet,” (Gazette des Beaux-Arts), “Vernet Tied to a Mast in a Storm: The Evolution of an Episode of Art Historical Folklore,” (The Art Bulletin), “The Eighteenth-Century Rediscovery of Alexis Grimou and the Emergence of the Proto-Bohemian Image of the French Artist,” (Eighteenth-Century Studies), “Some Unexplored Aspects of the Illustrations of Atala: The Surencheres Visuelles of Girodet and Hersent,” (Actes du Congrès de Wisconsin pour le 200 anniversaire de la naissance de Chateaubriand).Endnotes
  1. The present discussion of The New Danaë's scandal is mostly on such sources. A large part of this material can be found in the Collection Deloynes (Paris, Bibl. Nat., Cabinet des Estampes): Chaussard, “Exposition des ouvrages de peinture, sculpture . . .”, Journal de la Decade, 1799 (XXI, 580, p. 452); François peintre, “Exposition du salon de peinture,” Journal du Mois I (XXI, 581, pp. 512-515); “Précis historique de ce qui s'est passé au sujet du portrait de la Citoyenne Lange, femme Simons,” Journal des Arts, 1799 (XXI, 584, pp. 584-588); “Second précis historique au sujet de Madame Simons,” Journal des Arts, 1799 (XXI, 585, p. 592); “Beaux-Arts, Musée central des Arts,” Mecure de France (XXI, 565, p. 267). Among other sources and studies, one can mention: A. L. Girodet, Oeuvres posthumes (Paris, Renouard, 1829), I Notice Historique by Coupin, pp. l-liij; De Guerle, “Stratonice et son peintre, conte qui n'en est pas un,” in Les Hommes illustres de l'Orléanais (Orléans, Gatinau, 1852, X, pp. 63-70); A. V. Arnault, Souvenirs d'un sexagenaire (Paris, Garnier), II, p. 54; J. Renouvier, Histoire de l'art pendant la Révolution (Paris, Renouard, 1863), II, pp. 494-496; E. and J. de Goncourt, Histoire de la société française pendant le Directoire (Paris, Flammarion/Fasquelle, 1928), pp. 342-348; Michaud, Biographie universelle, new ed. (Paris, Delagrave), XXIII, pp. 171-172 and VI, p. 537; G. Levitine, “The Influence of Lavater and Girodet's Expression des sentiments de l'âme,” The Art Bulletin, March 1954, XXXVI, pp. 38-39; and Girodet, 1767-1824, Exposition du deuxième centenair, Musée de Montargis, 1967, no. 64. This catalogue, composed by Madame J. Pruvost-Auzas, contains important unpublished information.
  2. Girodet, 1767-1824 Exposition du deuxième centenaire, no. 64.
  3. Cf. François peintre (Deloynes, XXI, 581, p. 515).
  4. Later, this actress was to be romantically involved with Girodet himself.
  5. This figure recalls the genius of marriage in Lotto's Marriage Yoke (Prado).
  6. On the scroll, one reads: MACCII. PLAVTI. ASINARIA. COMOEDIA.
  7. The same relationship is suggested in De Guerle's Stratonice et son peintre, conte qui n'en est pas un.
  8. Despite the minute size of the statue, one can see that the figure is holding stalks of wheat in her right hand, and, on her left, there is a suggestion of a spiraling cornucopia.
  9. Girodet, O Euvres posthumes, I, Notice historique, pp. xiv-xv.
  10. “Humano capiti cervicem pictor equinam. . .” vv.1-4.
  11. XIV, Epigram clxxv. Girodet wrote a number of imitations of Martial (Girodet, O Euvres posthumes, II, pp. 79-87).
  12. F. Noël, Dictionnaire de la fable (Paris, Le Normant, 1803). This dictionary constantly refers to emblems (Ripa, Cochin, etc.). Girodet's contribution is repeatedly acknowledged by Noël (ibid., I, p. xxij and pp. xxvij-xxviij).
  13. Girodet is also influenced by physiognomical concepts derived from Lebrun and Lavater. (Cf. Levitine, “The Influence of Lavater and Girodet's Expression des sentiments de l'âme,” The Art Bulletin, March 1954, pp. 38-39).
  14. Girodet, O Euvres posthumes, I, pp. 99-100.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy Trioson. French (1767-1824). Mlle Lange as Danaë, 1799. Oil on fabric, 25 1/2” x 21 1/4”. The William Hood Dunwoody Fund, 69.22.
  2. Thomas-Charles Naudet. Girodet Directing the Hanging of The New Danaë in the Salon. Cabinet des Estampes, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
  3. François Colson. Mademoiselle Lange en Silvie (1792). Comédie Française, Paris (photo: Archives photographiques).
  4. St. F. (SIC). La Moderne Danaé ou La Maîtresse à la mode. Cabinet des Estampes, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
  5. Les Inséparables. Cabainet des Estampes, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
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Source: George Levitine, "Girodet's New Danaë: The Iconography of a Scandal," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 58 (1969): 69-77.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009