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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Grandest Art of All

The Battle of Friedland, 1875, Jean-Louis-Ernst Meissionier
Today we are fond of thinking of our century as the one in which "anything is possible." We might be surprised to realize that much the same attitude prevailed during previous centuries as well. And nowhere was this feeling more prevalent than among artists. During the 19th century, as painters took on ever larger and larger canvases and the Academicians took ever greater pains in researching the authenticity of their painting endeavors, artists such as Jean-Louis-Ernst Meissonier would spend up to fifteen years on a single work (The Battle of Friedland) while Mariano Fortuny y Carbo spent his entire life planning The Battle of Tetuan. In fact, he died before completing it. Despite his early demise, as we might say today, these men clearly had too much time on their hands. After all, they were only paintings.

The Battle of Tetuan, 1862-64, Mariano Fortuny y Carbo
Artists yearned to work on a grader scale. Tired of merely painting landscapes, there developed in Europe, the artists who worked to create landscapes. Today we would call them landscape architects, but at that time, they were still considered artists, in the grandest sense of the word. Imagine taking a nondescript strip of land and moving it, reshaping it, molding it, dressing it in greenery, decorating it with winding paths, formal reflecting pools, seemingly accidental lakes, magnificent architectural gems of no great practical value, graceful, romantic, stone bridges, or ancient Roman ruins for no other purpose than to excite the senses and lull away the hours dreaming of times past, of beautiful maidens and heroic knights, righting wrongs and modeling the latest in medieval armor. It was ten times better than even the most realistic, Romantic painting because it was real. And these horticultural masterpieces were not just for the nobility, but were open to the public!

Kew Gardens, London
Cities actually competed in building the most glorious fantasy lands to which their burgeoning populations could escape the blight of the Industrial Revolution, if only on Sunday afternoons (after church of course). Paris had it's Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Vienna its Museen der Stadt Park, while London clearly out did them all with it's Kew Gardens, Regent's Park Zoological Garden, its Cremorne Gardens, and its Vauxhall Gardens, which was accessible only by boat across the Thames. The American equivalent was New York City's Central Park. They came to be known as "pleasure gardens." Charles Dickens describes the experience: "We loved to wander among these illuminated groves. The temples and saloons and coloramas and fountains glittered and sparkled before our eyes; the beauty of the lady singers and the elegant deportment of the gentlemen captivated our hearts; a few hundred thousand of additional lamps dazzled our senses, a bowl or two of punch bewildered our brains; and we were happy." All things were possible. It was art on the grandest possible scale--something like a day at Disney World.
Vauxhall Gardens, 1751, most of which has today been appropriated
for other purposes.

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