Updated: Feb 14, 2021
What do you do with a free hour on a business trip? Of course, you could sit in your hotel room and catch up with emails. Or, you could pay a quick visit to the local museum. It might feel like truancy, but it could serve a very pragmatic business purpose, giving you a good ice-breaker for your 3:00 meeting. More importantly, you could let art fulfill its purpose – stimulating you to think and feel, to escape the confines of your immediate circumstances.
Stuck in lock-down these past few weeks, I have been thinking about my trip to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco in early February. It was a gorgeous sunny afternoon, with the fog beginning to roll into the Golden Gate. The museum was the perfect size for a free hour. I wandered and played my favorite parlor game – “If I could own any object or painting in this room, which one would I choose and why?”
I became fixated with a small, dark painting on panel by an artist I did not recognize - Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson. The museum plaque said little about the painting, save the vague date “ca.1806” and the title “The Bard.”
The curator’s choice for the title was oddly minimalist. Yes, the painting does depict a bard holding his harp. But title omits the drama within the painting itself. The bard hides in a cave in a state of abject terror. Outside the cave, a large medieval army marches past, led by a king. One shield prominently depicts a prancing boar. Another bard lies dead at the entrance to the cave, his broken harp trod upon by the advancing army. An owl hides with the bard in the cave. The drama of the scene is intensified by the artist’s masterful depiction of the sky’s light, as the bright sun is becoming subsumed by dark clouds.
What is this painting depicting? And why would a French artist at the height of Napoleon’s reign choose to paint this scene? Was it an artist’s protest – wisdom and the arts fleeing the onslaught of the martial state? Or simply a Romantic rendition of an old legend? A great question to consider on the red eye back to New York.
I hope an art history graduate student gives this painting the attention it deserves. But with a bit of free time during our Coronavirus lockdown, I dug a bit, and found the subject. According to legend, Edward I put to death the bards of Wales during his conquest in the late 13th century. By killing them, he hoped to eradicate vestiges of Welsh culture. Thomas Gray wrote a poem in 1757 about the Welsh bards; in it, the last surviving bard curses the invading monarch, and prophesizes the misfortune of Edward’s descendants before hurling himself into the Conway River.
A number of British artists depicted the scene. Benjamin West around 1778 shows the last bard of Wales, his long hair and beard streaming in the wind, raising his hand as utters his prophecies majestically.
In a work nearly contemporaneous with Girodet’s, William Blake’s composition is considerably more complex. The Last Bard stands with the ghosts of his fallen comrades, towering above King Edward, his wife Eleanor and his lieutenants Roger Mortimer and Gilbert de Clare. In both compositions, the Bard has power.
But Girodet’s painting is strikingly different. There is no heroic defiant gesture by the bard from the heights of the Snowdonia Mountains. To the contrary, the bard remains too terrified by the army to curse or prophesize, and hides in a cave. Girodet’s work is not merely a Romanticist retelling of ancient Celtic tale. But what was it then?
By extraordinary coincidence, I came across the subject a week later while viewing Mystic’s Seaport’s delightful exhibition of JMW Turner’s watercolors.
According to the Tate’s notes, Turner focused intensely on Gray’s description of the Snowdonia mountainscape, which he had just visited. Edward’s army marches towards the viewer, but the soldiers seem insignificant compared to the grandeur and majesty of the Welsh mountains. This army feels different from Girodet’s consuming menace. In the French painting, the army is a force of Nature itself, the power of the levee en masse. The juxtaposition with Turner’s watercolor might lead one to view Girodet’s work as an act of political protest, but the artist’s life makes this interpretation more complicated.
Some 50 years after Girodet’s painting, a Hungarian poet did in fact use the ancient Welsh tale as a means of political protest. Janos Arany was asked to write a poem praising the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I. Instead, he wrote a poem about the Welsh bards, describing how 500 of them were executed by Edward I for failing to sing the king’s praises at a banquet. In that instance, the political analogy was clear.
But Girodet seemed very comfortable serving Napoleon, and he received many commissions from the Bonapartist regime. He evidently made some 36 portraits of the emperor, two of Napoleon’s father as well as a monumental painting commemorating the surrender of Vienna to Napoleon in 1805. He became a Knight of the Legion of Honor in 1806, an honor which would not likely have been bestowed upon a political malcontent.
There is a superb catalogue that accompanied the four venue exhibition of Girodet’s work in 2005-2007. Several essays were included, including one by Stephan Guegan, a curator at the Musee d’Orsay, on Girodet’s somewhat fluid political loyalties. Guegan notes that despite Girodet’s Bonapartist patronage, he remained close friends with Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis, the informal leader of a group of intellectuals whom Napoleon dubbed “The Ideologues.” These “writers and journalists, artists and musicians, scientists and economists…were directly or indirectly affected by imperial censorship,” and regarded Napoleon as leading France towards despotism. Is it possible that “The Bard” was a discreet sympathetic nod to Cabanis or “The Ideologues?” Measuring a mere 13 5/8 x 9 7/8 inches, the work could hardly be considered the most courageous act of artistic protest. Still, it may have been well received by this beleaguered group of intellectuals.
There is one detail in Girodet’s painting that deserves further study – the emblem of the boar on the shield of soldier closest to the hiding bard. While Gray’s poem does mention a boar with respect to Edward’s final reigning descendant, Richard III, Girodet would not likely have been interested in Plantagenet trivia. Does the boar have any significance or is it a random heraldic detail?
I stumbled across one of those infuriating facts on the internet. It is repeated on a number of sites, presumably from a common source, but gives little supporting evidence to back its claim. According to Wikipedia’s entry on “Boars in Heraldry”, among the modern rulers who have used the boar as part of their coats of arms are King Joseph Bonaparte, the emperor’s brother, and Marshall Joachim Murat, the emperor’s brother-in-law. Both featured prominently in Napoleon’s militaristic exploits in Europe. Was it a reference to them specifically? Or, is it a reference to the famed Corsican wild boars, and thus by extension to the island’s most famous son?
Or is it just a random heraldic detail?
I’m afraid I have taken this topic as far as I can. Perhaps one day a graduate student will give the painting the more scholarly study it deserves. But I hope my minor amateur research might serve as a reminder of the beauty and richness of our artistic heritage. The Bard is a minor work in a small museum, yet once we explore it, we find a great many important themes – the political suppression of culture, the rise and fall of great powers and dynasties, cowardice and collaboration with tyranny. Just as the 19th century can draw inspiration from the 13th, we can from the past as well.
Before too long, our Coronavirus lock-down will end, and we will resume our very busy lives. We will be able to enjoy museums again in our own city - or in others, as business travel resumes. I would encourage all of you to indulge in a bit of truancy and visit them. You might be surprised by what you discover.
Notes on the images:
Benjamin West, The Bard, 1778, © The Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported), https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/west-the-bard-t01900
William Blake, The Bard, from Gray, c. 1809, © The Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported), https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/blake-the-bard-from-gray-n03551
Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Destruction of the Bards by Edward I, c.1799–1800, © The Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported), https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-the-destruction-of-the-bards-by-edward-i-d04168