Special Loan: Vesuvius in the Shadow of Revolution

oil painting depicting landscape of Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples

By Jenna Nugent, Assistant to the Chief Curator

A Rare Landscape by Girodet Comes to the Frick

During the height of the Terror, shortly before Louis XVI was executed in Paris on January 21, 1793, the French artist Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson fled on foot from Rome, where he had been studying, to Naples. He sought to escape the mounting hostility and violence in Rome caused by the abolition of the French monarchy and the establishment of the Republic in September 1792. Naples was an obvious place to seek refuge, as Ferdinand IV de Bourbon, king of Naples, had promised French citizens full protection within his states.

Soon after his arrival in Naples, Girodet wrote to a confidant back in France: “It was in the vicinity of Rome that I should have indulged this year in the study of landscape, the universal genre of painting to which all other genres are subordinated, because they are contained in it.” Girodet’s assertions on the art of landscape painting were quite radical for the time, when a strict hierarchy of genres existed within the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. History painting was situated at the top of this ranking, while landscape painting was generally regarded as a lesser genre. Girodet’s statement is all the more surprising given that he was a member of the Academy and studied for many years under Jacques-Louis David, a great master of history painting and a pioneer of the neoclassical style.

With his plan to study the Roman landscape thwarted, Girodet swiftly shifted his attention to the geography around Naples. His writings and a few surviving paintings from this period illustrate his interest in the southern Italian landscape. One example — A View of Vesuvius from Naples — is on display in the North Hall, on loan to the Frick through April, owing to the generosity of Trustee Margot Bogert and her husband, Jerry.

The painting depicts Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples from the hills of San Martino. Warm gray clouds part to show patches of cerulean sky, and sunlight shines through, reflecting off the lava paths below. The volcano emits violet-gray smoke, which mixes with the clouds above. Geometric shapes in pastel colors represent houses and other architectural structures built on the banks of the bay, dwarfed by the majestic volcano. These, as well as the imposing Castel Nuovo and the faint outlines of ship masts, are the only signs of human life. Daylight illuminates the right-hand wall of the castle, while the remainder of the foreground is bathed in shadow. The picture is balanced and framed by a land mass in the foreground on the left-hand side and a second edifice and two tall, dark trees on the right.

Girodet was born on January 29, 1767, in the town of Montargis, in north-central France. He began lessons with a local drawing master at the age of six and continued his studies with a private drawing tutor during his years at boarding school, which he entered at age seven. At sixteen, he enrolled at the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture and by 1784 had joined the atelier of Jacques-Louis David.

After establishing himself in David’s studio alongside contemporaries Jean-Germain Drouais, François-Xavier Fabre, and François Gérard, Girodet competed for the Academy’s Grand Prix (which would come to be known as the Prix de Rome in the nineteenth century). A rite of passage for French artists, the scholarship awarded funding to study in Rome for several years at the expense of the state, immersing recipients in the art and antiquities of the Eternal City. After three years of competition, Girodet won the Prix in 1789 with a history painting, the subject of which was predetermined by the Academy and conformed to the neoclassical style dominant at the time. (The painting, Joseph Recognized by his Brothers, now hangs in the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.)

Girodet’s departure for Rome was delayed by the storming of the Bastille in July 1789 and the chaos that ensued. When he finally reached Italy in May 1790, he began to distance himself from David’s atelier, asserting his independence as an artist and staunchly refuting his master’s tenets. His efforts to embrace originality led him away from the classical ideals of neoclassicism and toward an appreciation of the subjectivity of the individual, a precept that would come to define the Romantic movement.

Girodet arrived in Naples in early 1793 with landscape artist Jean-Pierre Péquignot. King Ferdinand’s guarantee of protection for French refugees did not last long, however; he and his wife Maria-Carolina of Austria were alarmed by the execution of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette and ultimately joined the anti-French coalition. Most French residents were expelled from the city, but Girodet, who was plagued by ill-health, received medical certificates that permitted him to prolong his stay an additional thirteen months.

Despite his illness, Girodet dedicated himself to the study of the Neapolitan landscape. Many of his surviving writings demonstrate his profound interest in the geography, especially Mount Vesuvius. The volcano — which had been in a state of almost continuous activity since 1631 — erupted four times during Girodet’s lifetime. Although it had remained quiet during his stay, it erupted just a few months after his departure for Venice, devastating the town of Torre del Greco that lay at its feet. Clearly interested in the power of the eruption, Girodet wrote to Péquignot (who had remained behind in Naples), requesting specifically a night-time study that would illustrate the blinding light and heat of the explosion. For those living in its shadow, Vesuvius was a reminder of the paramount force of nature over humankind; for Girodet, it may have taken on greater significance in the context of the human horrors of the Revolution and Terror.

Landscapes represent a very small facet of Girodet’s oeuvre, which consists primarily of portraits and history and mythological paintings. After five years in Italy, the artist returned to France, where he spent the remainder of his career focused primarily on these three genres. This does not diminish the importance of landscape painting for him (indeed, many of his later subjects are set within landscapes). Unlike fellow Prix winners (such as David, Fabre, and Drouais), who had traveled to Rome to study works by the great Renaissance masters, Girodet seemed more interested in the Italian countryside. In a letter to Gérard dated August 11, 1790, Girodet wrote “Italy is a superb country, and much more precious for itself and its monuments than for its painting.” Had it not been for his recurring illness and the political turmoil around him, perhaps he would have produced more depictions of the Italian landscape.

Girodet’s View of Vesuvius from Naples provides a rich counterpoint to the Frick’s small but superb collection of works by the artist’s contemporaries, including David, Chinard, and Ingres. These Napoleonic artists studied extensively in Italy, inspired by the artistic heritage of the country, as well as by its monumental landscape.

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767–1824), A View of Vesuvius from Naples, 1793–94, oil on canvas, on loan from Mr. and Mrs. Jeremiah M. Bogert

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