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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Édouard Debat-Ponsan

One Morning Outside the Door of the Louvre, 1880, Edouard Debat-Ponsan, depicts
the Queen of France, Catherine de Medici, calmly  surveying the victims of the
1572 St. Bartholomew's Day massacre.
Anyone who reads this column regularly knows that I'm no great fan of Academic art, especially French Academic art. However I do sometimes write about French Academic artists and I will also go so far as to admit that there is some "good" Academic art mixed in with the overwhelmingly mediocre to bad stuff. Strangely, quite often the "good" comes from the same brush as the bad. Usually the good stuff involves reasonably accurate history painting that has somehow managed not to be "puffed up" by the artist to seem far more important than it is (virtually any paintings featuring Napoleon, for instance). Beyond that, most Academic art pretentiously glorifies some form of bland morality or thinly disguised inmorality (sanitized female nudity disguised as mythology) dripping with erotic overtones or undercurrents bordering on pornography.

Christ on the Mountain, Edouard Debat-Ponsan

Edouard, Debat-Ponsan, 1901,
possibly a self-portrait.
Édouard Debat-Ponsan, born in 1847, was an Academic artist, a student (or victim) of Alexander Cabanal. Much of his work is trite Academicism, mythology, nudity for the sake of nudity, and portraits in the category of what modern-day journalism refers to as "puff pieces." Yet in amongst the melange of mediocrity are some surprising hits. His One Morning Outside the Door of the Louvre (top) from 1880 is one such work. It's not history glorified but history stripped naked, cutting to the core of man's inhumanity to man. Debat-Ponsan may actually have been drawing a not-so-subtle reference to the then more recent (1871) Paris Commune and the bloodbath resulting from that. History painting is at its best when it deals, even obliquely, with recent events. The undated Christ on the Mountain (above) is another class act, an anti-war painting, rendered in a traditional Academic style, confronting the ungodly immorality of war at a time when warfare was invariably glorified, rather than shamed by Christian morality.

The Furrow, 1891, Édouard Debat-Ponsan

Edouard Debat-Ponsan
in his studio, 1907
Debat-Ponsan's 1891 The Furrow (above) is not historic or religious. This Academic painter deserves applause for not being afraid to "stoop" from high-flown history painting to embrace the simple morality of hard-working genre. To our eyes, his honest depiction of the grimy grind of gritty, grungy drudgery is far more intriguing than Catherine de Medici. If nothing else it causes us to look favorably on the daily toils of our own lives. Edouard Debat-Ponsan is at his best when depicting rural farm life he knew as a child growing up near Toulouse (southern France). His Little Girl Feeding the Chickens (below), from 1891, does not preach. It's simply a fond memory intended to trigger other fond memories. Like most Academic art, Debat-Ponsan is at his worst when he struggles to be great. His bare-breasted allegories, such as La Verite, from 1898, or his salacious Le Massage, from 1883, are so insipid as to not be worth displaying here on these "hallowed" pages. Edouard Debat-Ponsan died one-hundred years ago--yet another Academician whom time had passed by--no doubt horrified at the frightening path modern artists were blazing into the futuristic 20th century.

A Little Girl Feeding Chickens, 1891, Edouard Debat-Ponsan--
The Catherine de Medici of the barnyard.


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