Anne-Louis GIRODET

Montargis 1767 - Paris 1824


One of the principal history painters of the Napoleonic era, Anne-Louis Girodet entered the studio of Jacques-Louis David in 1783, at the age of sixteen. He won the Prix de Rome on his third attempt in 1789, when he shared the prize with Charles Meynier. He was in Italy between 1790 and 1795, working in Rome and Naples, and in 1793 sent back to Paris his first submission to the Salon, The Sleep of Endymion, an evocative painting which proved immensely popular and established his reputation. A huge theatrical canvas of a Scene from a Deluge was exhibited to much acclaim at the Salon of 1806, while two years later a painting of The Burial of Atala was equally celebrated. These paintings evoke a distinctly proto-Romantic sensibility at odds with the strict neoclassicism of the artist’s Davidian training, although Girodet always remained first and foremost a history painter. As Neil MacGregor has succinctly noted, ‘Girodet is the paradigm of the artist caught in a change of traditions, a man in whom neo-classicism and romanticism – however specially defined – coexisted in conflict. Reluctant to submerge his personality in an idealized aesthetic, unable to throw off its weight, he is the enfant terrible of late eighteenth-century French art.’ In 1810 Girodet was awarded a prize for the finest history painting of the past decade, the premier prix du concours décennal, for the Scene from a Deluge of 1806. (His master David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women of 1799 came second.) Several of Girodet’s finest later works were of Napoleonic subjects, such as the Ossian Receiving the Shades of the French Heroes of 1801, commissioned by the First Consul for Malmaison. In 1809 he was entrusted by the Empress Josephine with the decoration of the Imperial apartments at Compiègne. After 1810, Girodet produced only a handful of history paintings, preferring instead to concentrate on portraiture. At the Salon of 1814 he exhibited fifteen paintings, three of which were acquired by the Crown. The end of that decade saw a falling off in his powers, however, exacerbated by bouts of severe depression and a weakened constitution aggravated by his habit of working late at night. After 1820 he seems to have largely given up painting and instead devoted himself almost exclusively to his writings, notably his epic poem Le Peintre, and to producing highly-finished drawings on literary themes. A popular teacher, Girodet had many pupils, of whom the most notable were Alexandre-Marie Colin, Léon Coigniet, Théodore Gudin and the brothers Achille and Eugène Deveria. Girodet worked extensively as an illustrator, collaborating with the publisher Pierre Didot to provide superb illustrations for editions of Virgil, Racine and Anacreon. He is known to have regarded illustration as of equal importance to grand history painting, and the posthumous sale of the contents of his studio in 1825 included a large number of drawings for book illustrations and engravings, several of which achieved very high prices. The Girodet scholar Sylvain Bellenger has noted that, ‘A devotee of literature, Girodet was especially concerned with the relationship between text and image…and he devoted himself particularly to illustrating literature. Nowhere better than in his illustrations for Racine’s Phèdre and Andromaque did Girodet advance the sophistication and subtlety of literary illustration to create profound historical compositions. He explained their importance in a letter to the Marquis de Pastoret…“It is a mistake for drawings to be nothing but drawings, and they require the same conception and almost the same study as a painting when one takes pride in giving them style and character; only the process of execution is different. The artist who succeeds at such drawings can be none other than a history painter.”’