David said once of Girodet: “L'esprit, M. Girodet, est l'ennimi du génie, l'esprit vous jouera quelque mauvais tour, il vous égarera.” Here David spoke almost like a romantic, but Girodet, though he presents an easily recognizable romantic side, was a romantic doubled with a mannerist, reminding one in this respect, as Walter Friedlaender remarked,1
of Fuseli, though this latter, of course was a much more original and deeper artist. Girodet's Danaë2
is so typical of mannerism, not only for style of composition but also on account of the symbolical intention, that Friedlaender was entirely justified in writing that “with a few alterations, the painting might well have been made in the sixteenth century.” Bronzino's Venus
in the National Gallery, London, is the archetype of the kind of allegorical painting to which Girodet's Danaë
belongs. And the circumstances in which the painting originated remind one of the war of emblematic calumnies which took place between the Jesuit Father Claude-François Menestrier and Claude Le Laboureur in the century in which wit, l'esprit,
was the quality most admired in a work of art, the seventeenth. As Menestrier had a series of spiteful emblems and devices engraved, allusive to the name and vocation of his rival, so Girodet, not content with all allegorical import of his Danaë,
added four emblems in the spandrels of the frame which blazoned the subject of the painting as loose and grasping female. But let us first of all refresh our memory with the pages of the Mémoires
of the Duchess d'Abrantès relating the origin of the Danaë
Je l'ai connu particulièrement, Girodet, et j'ai pu apprécier son esprit, son talent et tout ce qui en faisait un homme supérieur; mais il était passionné, irascible. Cette même année de 1800 lui en vit donner une preuve qui pouvait ternir son beau caractère. Une femme célèbre par sa beauté et son talent dramatique lui avait fait faire son portrait. L'ouvrage achevé, elle ne le trouva pas à son gré, voulut contester sur quelques points convenus. Il y eut une discussion. Girodet n'avait pas encore tort. Il fut blessé. Un propos tout à fait inconvenant, que le mari eut l'imprudence de tenir et qui fut redit à l'artiste susceptible, acheva de le mettre en fureur. Il donne quatre coups de couteau dans le tableau et le renvoie dans cet état à Mme S . . . en lui disant qu'elle pouvait disposer non seulement du portrait, mais du prix qu'elle avait destiné à l'acquittement du marché convenu et qu'il allait se payer à sa manière. Si Virodet n'avait pas été plus loin, si la menace s'était bornée à ne donner que de la frayeur, tout était bien. Mais il alla plus loin et, dès lors, il eut tort.Le Salon était encore ouvert pour plusieurs jours. On ne conçoit pas la rapidité avec laquelle son pinceau fut conduit, mais il est de fait que huit jours au plus après le renvoi du portrait, il parut dans le Salon de l'Exposition un tableau de la grandeur à peu près de deux pieds et demi sur quatre, dont le sujet compliqué avait dû à lui seul être l'objet d'un long travail. Ce tableau était placé dans l'angle à gauche de la porte qui mène aujourd'hui à la seconde galerie de l'Exposition moderne. Dès qu'il parut, tous les autres tableaux furent désertés. On s'étouffait devant celui-ci.Il représentait l'intérieur d'un grenier. Dans un des coins était un lit à peine couvert par une méchante paillasse et une couverture percée. Sur cette paillasse était à demi couchée une jeune et jolie personne coiffée avec des plumes de paon et n'ayant pour tout vêtement qu'une tunique de gaze laissant voir des jambes d'une grosseur extraordinaire. Elle tenait cette gaze des deux mains pour recevoir une pluie de pièces d'or qui coulaient par le toit de la mansarde. Près du lit était une lampe dont la lueur brillante attirait une foule de papillons et de mouches luisantes qui tous venaient se brûler à cette lumière traitresse. Sous le lit on voyait un énorme dindon étendant une de ses pattes à laquelle on voyait un bel anneau nuptial. Dans un coin bien obscur, on apercevait une vieille femme mise en mendiante et ressemblant parfaitement à une vieille malheureuse qui demandait l'aumone à la porte d'Orleans et qui était, disait-on, la mère de l'original du tableau coupé dont on retrouvait la parfaite ressemblance dans da Danaé du châlit, à laquelle au reste la vanité présentait un miroir. Puis il y avait encore d'autres allusions, comme une grenouille qui s'enflait tellement qu'elle crevait, et une foule de choses plaisantes que j'ai oubliées depuis que je n'ai vu ce tableau. J'en ai parlé depuis à Girodet. Il m'a temoigné ressentir quelque regret de s'être laissé emporter à une vengeance peut-être trop forte.
-Mais aussi elle m'avait bien offensé! disait-il.Je ne sais si ce fut un sentiment de retour sur lui-même, ou le poids des sollicitations répétées des amis de la Danaé qui eurent le pouvoir de fléchir Girodet. Il n'a jamais voulu me répondre à cet égard. Le fait est que le malheureux tableau ne demeura exposé que peu de jours. Il fut enlevé, mais pas avant néanmoins que la foule avide n'ait eu le temps de satisfaire une curiosité maligne excitée pau une intention plus maligne encore.3
The Duchess's description is not quite accurate, but on the whole it shows how familiar the contemporary public was with the language of iconology. A minute inspection of the painting reveals such a quality of emblematic allusions, that Picinelli's Mundus symbolicus in emblematum universitate formatus
or some such encyclopaedia of emblems might be profitably consulted in order to become fully aware of the point of Girodet's poisonous arrows. There is a comedian's mask with a coin for a monocle, a roll inscribed Acci Plauti Asinaria,
jester's staff, a white dove, as meticulously painted as by a Pre-Raphaelite, hanging from one arm of a pair of scales, and everywhere peacock's feathers, a symbol of vanity, but that this vanity is hollow seems to be shown by the hand-mirror, which is cracked in its lower portion. The four corner emblems of the frame are tell-tale enough. There are three frogs trying to swell to the size of an ox with the motto Nec pluribus impar
there are butterflies choosing to feed on coins in a casket instead of the nearby flowers (Trahit sua quemque voluptas), there is a many-headed monster like the grylli
of the ancient gems, with the comment from Horace: Risum teneatis amici?,
and finally, on the left-hand corner, a siren gazing at a mirror (a counterpart of the main subject of the painting), with the Horatian quotation: Desinit in piscem mulier formosa superne,
which reminds us of Thackeray's remarks about Becky Sharp: “In describing the siren, signing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all round, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the monster's hideous tail above water? No! Those who like may peep down under the waves that are pretty transparent, and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, or curling round corpses, but above the water-line, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish immoralists in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie?”4
The same may be said of Girodet's presentation of Mademoiselle Lange. Does not everything look proper, agreeable, and decorous in the picture? Is not the lady as voluptuous as Venus, and the attendant Cupids, are they not the very brothers of the charming boys in Bronzino's Venus
? (In fact, the one holding the tunic into which the coins fall, seems to have the reversed position of Cupid in the Florentine's painting; and as also in this latter there are masks on the floor, and a white dove under Cupid's foot, and an old woman in the background,5
one can hardly escape the conclusion that the French painter intended to create an allegory in the manner of Bronzino.) In both allegories, under charming appearances, there lurks something hollow and sinister. The tortuous, serpentinate
forms of mannerism were well suited to express the deceitful charms of Alcina, a world of pretence and gaudy pomp, of sham and greed. The quality of personnages de crystal
which David found in Girodet, is common also to Bronzino's figures; only Girodet blurs the purity of outline of Bronzino or even of the nymph by Andrea Calamech in Ammannati's Fontana del Biancone in Piazza della Signoria in Florence (whose attitude may well have suggested Mademoiselle Lange's). He crowds the picture with a wealth or heterogeneous details whose mixture verges on Kitsch
as in his Ossian picture in which Napoleon's grenadiers with their tall busbies and smoking pipes in their mouths fraternize with the heroes of the Gaelic saga with hoary beards and flaming eyes, while choruses of nymphs cater for the newcomers and soothe their ears with the tunes of their harps, and a young dragoon kills Fingal's fierce enemy with the sword of honor given him by the First Consul. “Girodet est trop savant pour mous,” said David on another occasion. And so he was precious, like his distant brothers who decorated the Studiolo of Francesco I in Palazzo Vecchio.Mario Praz,
distinguished historian and critic of literature and the visual arts, lives in Rome where he was professor of English language and literature at the University of Rome from 1943 to 1966. His more recent books include An Illustrated History of Furnishing from the Renaissance to the 20th Century
(1964), Studies in Seventeenth-Century Imagery
(2nd edition, 1964), On Neoclassicism
(1969) and Mnemosyne, The Parallel between Literature and the Visual Arts
(Princeton University Press, 1970).Endnotes
Referenced Works of Art
- Walter Friedlaender, Hauptströmungen der französischen Malerei von David bis Cézanne (Bielefeld and Leipzig, Verlag von Velhagen & Klasing, 1930), p. 49.
- 69.22. The William Hood Dunwoody Fund. Oil on fabric, 25 1/2” x 21 1/4”.
- “I knew Girodet particularly well, and could appreciate his wit, his talent—in fact, all that made him a superior person; but he was also hot-tempered and irascible. That same year—1800—furnished a proof of his irascibility which somewhat tarnished his fine reputation. A woman, famous for her beauty and her dramatic talent, had had him do her portrait. The work finished, she did not find it to her liking and wished to contest certain points which had already been agreed upon. There was a heated discussion. So far Girodet had done nothing wrong, but he was hurt. A rather unseemly remark which her husband had had the indiscretion to make was repeated to the all too susceptible artist and succeeded in making him furious. He thereupon gave the painting four slashes with a knife and sent it in that state to Mme S . . . saying that she could dispose not only of the portrait but of the sum of money which was destined for its payment and that he would pay himself in his own way. If Girodet had gone no further than this, if the treat had only been restricted to frightening Mme S. . . a bit, all would have been well. But Girodet went further, and it was from that moment that he was badly in the wrong.“The Salon was still open for several days. It is impossible to conceive the rapidity with which he could wield a brush, but it is a fact that eight days at the most after the return of the portrait, there appeared at the Salon a painting, about two and a half by four feet, whose complicated subject matter alone should have been the result of long hours of labor. This painting was placed to the left of the door which leads to the second gallery of the contemporary exhibits. From the moment it appeared, all the other paintings were deserted. Everyone smothered to see the new one.“It represented the interior of an attic. In a corner was a bed scarcely covered by a horrible old mattress and tattered coverlet. On this mattress half reclined a young and pretty person, coiffed with peacocks plumes and having for clothing only a gauze tunic which permitted the sight of a pair of legs of extraordinary thickness. She held the gauze in her two hands in order to receive a stream of gold pieces which flowed from the roof of the attic window. Near the bed was a lamp whose brilliant light attracted a crowd of butterflies and fireflies which all came to be burned in its treacherous light. Under the bed could be seen an enormous turkey extending one of its claws on which was a fine wedding ring. In a strongly darkened corner could be seen an old woman dressed as a beggar who perfectly resembled a poor old wretch who regularly asked alms near the porte d'Orléans and who was, or so it was said, the mother of the woman in the painting slashed by Girodet. And it was this woman who bore a perfect resemblance to the Danaë of the bedstead, to whom vanity presented a mirror. In addition there were still other allusions, such as a frog which inflated itself to the bursting point, and a thousand amusing things which I have forgotten since I saw the painting. I have spoken of the work since with Girodet. He has confessed some regret for indulging himself in a vengeance which was perhaps too strong. “But then she had offended me!” he said.I do not know whether it was a sort of repentance on his part or whether it was the weight of the repeated solicitations of Danaë's friends which moved Girodet. He never wished to discuss the subject with me. However, the fact is that the unhappy painting was only exhibited for a few days. It was then removed, but not however before an avid public had time to satisfy its malicious curiosity—a curiosity excited by a still more malicious intention.” Mémoires de Madame la Duchesse d'Abrantès (Paris, Garnier), Vol., III, p. 55 ff.
- Vanity Fair, chap. lxiv.
- Although, as I have said the Duchess's description is not accurate (Mlle Lange does not hold the gauze in her two hands, one of the ends of it is held by a Cupid; her legs do not strike us as being “of extraordinary thickness”), it seems incredible that she and apparently other onlookers, should have seen the old beggar woman perfectly resembling Mlle. Lange's mother where we see no human face. One wonders whether the picture has been altered in this portion.
- 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.
- Agnolo di Cosimo Allori (called Bronzino). Italian (1503-1572). An Allegory: Venus, Folly, Cupid, and Time. Reproduced by the courtesy of the trustees, The National Gallery, London.
- Andrea Calamech. Italian (1514-1578). Nymph (from Ammannati's Fontana del Biancone, Piazza della Signoria, Florence). Photograph Alinari-Giraudon.