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Monday, December 12, 2011

Moving Up in the World

A successful artist from the 15th through the 18th
centuries might have lived and worked in a house
not unlike this one in Kent, England.
In the world today, most successful artists are what we would term "upper middle-class." A few "stars" are probably well above that. Two-hundred years ago, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, even a successful artist tended to live very modest existence in what we would call lower-class neighborhoods. Most supported a family of five or more in two or three rooms over the "store" so to speak, eking out a living as best they could doing whatever they could. Even a successful portrait painter would find himself also painting signs for the local gentry or decorating furniture for the local cabinet maker just to make ends meet. And often, his "digs" were so crude he was forced to do his "important" work in the homes of his clients. The status of the painter in society may have moved up somewhat from the just-another-craftsman level of pre-Renaissance times, but economically they were usually pretty much among the downtrodden.

              Frederic Lord Leighton's Arab vestibule
One thing changed all that--national art academies. Once official, state-sanctioned and supported art academies became prominent, those who successfully exhibited in their salons began to milk the prestige for all it was worth. This was especially the case in London and Paris. By mid-century, so-called "Academic Artists" were quite upwardly mobile. London's Lord Leighton had a mansion in fashionable Holland Park designed by the prominent English architect, George Aitchison, with an exotic Arab vestibule (above, right); while Randolph Caldecott's home featured a Moorish-style studio with rich Persian tiles and a mosaic fountain. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's home had two studios, one in a Pompeiian style for himself and a second, decorated in heavy German paneling for his wife (his painting, A Favourite Custom, is below, right). In Paris, Ernest Meissonier had built for himself a luxurious Neo-Renaissance palace. For all their straight-jacketing, stratifying, decadent ills, the national art academies had the effect of lifting the status of their artist to undreamed-of heights within just a few decades.

A favourite Custom, 1909,
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema,
any excuse for a female nude
(preferably as many as possible)
And what did these Academic artist trade for their new found prosperity? Some might say, quite literally their souls. Prizes in a Salon show often brought Royal patronage, but such patronage was limited to grandiose portraits, propagandizing history painting, sanitized mythological works, and religious works so vapid that they would today be considered Sunday School illustrations. Above all there would be female nudes, dozens of them sometimes in the same painting. By the end of the century, the Pompiers (as thet came to be called) had very nearly elevated such work to a cult status. Any story, religious, allegorical, or mythological scene that could in any way logically contain a female nude was pounced upon like dogs on a bone, then played to the hilt. But always it had to be of high moral character. In 1878, for example, the Academic painter, Henri Gervex, painted a scene from the poem Rolla by Alfred de Musset in which Gervex depicted Maria, a young prostitute, lying out naked on her bed, her clothes in a pile beside her while at a window, Rolla, a dashing but desperate bon vivant, contemplates suicide (bottom). Even for an Academic show in which there were more nudes than clothed figures, this was too much. The painting was banned for its moral deprivation. Gervex, though an "academically correct" artist, had gone too far.
                        Rolla, 1878, Henri Gervex, a nude too far

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