ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The epic themes of gods and heroes formed the scaffolding of the art world for nearly 200 years.
With Paris as its nexus, that massive influence crossed continents and oceans, landing on American soil in everything from the historically inaccurate grandeur of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” to the design of the U.S. Capitol.
“Gods and Heroes: Masterpieces from the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris” will show viewers what the Impressionists rebelled against in a selection of about 140 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings beginning Saturday at the Albuquerque Museum.
Originally formed to liberate artists from the medieval guilds, the École Des Beaux-Arts adhered to famously strict aesthetic standards. But sometimes deliverance creates its own dictatorship.
The École inadvertently produced Impressionism by rejecting the ground-breaking works of the movement’s most prominent artists, many of whom studied there, including Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Mary Cassatt. Taos artist E. Irving Couse would attend later. American portraitist John Singer Sargent and Ashcan School leader Robert Henri also were alumni.
The École rejected no less than Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne and James MacNeill Whistler, who were granted their own Salon des Refusés by Napoleon III in 1863.
The École glorified the art of Greco-Roman classical antiquity and the Italian Renaissance, with the male human body as its centerpiece. Its rigorous teachings dictated subject matter and style, as well as a rigid hierarchy of genres.
History painting loomed at the top, with everything else descending down the scale. The genre included such common themes as heroes defending their homeland or mankind struggling against fate, enemies or unjust gods. Its students juried into the program, rather than paying steep taxes to the guilds.
“It became an autonomous artistic program even though they were under the king,” Albuquerque Museum intern Josie Lopez said. “The École itself was free to young artists. So you had the class system upended.”
Drawing formed the basis of everything. Students began by copying prints by the masters, graduating to plaster casts and finally the live model. The exhibition includes a handful of those master prints, including those by Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt.
To its academic overseers, the depiction of Roman and Greek gods and heroes embodied the most perfect expression of truth and beauty.
In a viciously competitive environment, students had to follow the academic blueprint in the hopes of making it into the Paris salon, considered the most important art event in the Western world. It took place at the Louvre until 1850.
The museum stood on one side of the Seine, the aristocrats’ mansions on the other. The king got first choice. The dense concentration of works stirred both controversy and protest.
“There are stories about it becoming a mob scene,” said Albuquerque Museum curator Andrew Connors.
The school’s most triumphant years took place from the beginning of the French Revolution (1789) to the end of the Napoleonic Empire (1815).
Jacques Louis David would become one of its most famous graduates, as did his pupil Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. David competed for the prestigious Grand Prix three times before finally winning. He harbored a merciless hatred for the instructors who doubted his talent.
Ingres sided with revolutionary fervor, creating a style inspired by Greek models known as Neoclassicism, as exemplified in “Erasistratus Discovers the Cause of Antiochus’s Disease” (1774). The balance between the female figures on the right and the male figures on the left, the use of classical architecture and drapery and a subdued sense of emotion all signal the painter’s style.
But David would prove a harsh instructor, simultaneously contemptuous of students without originality and jealous of those with talent.
Ingres practiced an art detached from politics. In “The Ambassadors of Agamemnon” (1801) he treated Greek models with both sensuality and irony in a scene from Homer’s “Iliad.”
Ingres’ “Torso” (1880) illustrates a move toward the more ephemeral subject of shadow and light over the academic obsession with style and line. Presented in curved serpentine form, he emphasized the sensuality of the flesh rather than the underlying musculature.
“People ask, ‘Why are they all naked?'” Lopez said. “It’s about the artist’s ability to depict that male form because it’s the ultimate expression of human beauty.”
All of this set the stage for rebellion, as satirized in Daumier’s “Ulysses Introduced to Nausicaa” (1842). A shipwrecked Ulysses presents himself to young Phaeacians busy with domestic tasks. A princess does the laundry and the hero hides his nakedness behind branches.
Everything in the composition – the women’s gazes, the flapping sheets, the rugged landscape lines – is designed to lead our eyes to Ulysses’ barely concealed private parts.
“So Daumier is saying, ‘Who cares?'” Connors said. “Let’s be more aware of the problems in our contemporary society.
“The Impressionists were saying, ‘What about the here and now?'” he continued. “Let’s not deny that we have railroads.”
Today the École encompasses everything from film to the avant-garde, Connors said.
“Art history has not been kind to the works of these great artists.”