Recently, Agent Triple P visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston not really knowing what to expect in the way of paintings in such a relatively new city. What he had failed to iimediately appreciate, of course, is that Houston is an oil town and, as such has had its fair share of very rich people. Some of whom, at least, not only had a good eye for art but also were considerate enough to donate it to the museum. As a result there are some very fine works there indeed and a good number of top artists are featured. Some of the paintings are, admittedly, minor paintings by major artists but then these are just the sort of paintings that rich collectors would be able to acquire.
The Museum of Fine Arts Houston
We were very taken, when visiting the gallery, by Andromeda (1852) by Eugene Delacroix. The MFAH has remarkably few nudes on display, for some reason but this vigourous interpretation of the Persues and Andromeda myth by Delacroix demonstrates how he became one of the precursors of the impressionist movement. The subject of Andromeda has been popular with artists for hundreds if not thousands of years featuring, as it does, a naked virgin chained to rocks as an offering to a sea monster. We will look at some different interpretations of the legend another time (even Agent Triple P did a drawing of the subject once, although where it is now we are not sure) although we have already looked at one example by Finnish sculptor Takkanen.
Andromeda was the daughter of Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus of Ethiopia. This would have made her black, something which is hardly represented at all! Cassiopeia boasted that she was more beautiful then the Nereids, the sea nymphs and as a punishment for this impudence Poseidon sent the whale, Cetus, to ravage the coast of Ethiopia. Desperate to stop these predations Cepheus consulted the Oracle of Apollo as to what to do. The Oracle said that only by sacrificing his virgin daughter, Andromeda, to the monster could he save his kingdom. He chained her to a rock on the coast and waited for the monster to take her. Fortuitously for Andromeda, Perseus, having just returned from having killed the Gorgon Medusa, rescued her by turning Cetus to stone by exposing him to the head of Medusa. He married Andromeda and they lived happily ever after becoming the ancestors of the Persians.
Chained Andromeda in the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans
Parts of this story were used in the recent (2010) and the superior original (1981) films called Clash of the Titans. Sadly, Andromeda is fully clothed in both versions (although Andromeda (Judi Bowker or more probably a body double) does strip off to great effect in an earlier bath scene in the 1981 version). In the recent remake they don't even put Andromeda on a rock but suspend her from a sort of fireman's ladder from the city wall.
Alexa Davalos as Andromeda hangs about waiting for rescue in the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans
Eugene Delacroix was born in Charenton-St-Maurice in 1798 but moved to Paris with his family at the age of seven on the death of his father. It was widely believed that his real father was the noted French diplomat Talleyrand whosucceeded Delacroix's father as French Minister of Foreign affairs. By 1815 he was studying under Pierre-Narcisse Guerin and submitted his first major work to the Paris Salon in 1822. Two years later his next Salon entrey The Massacre at Chios was bought by the French government and his career went from strength to strength with him eventually producing 850 paintings of largely historical or contemporary subjects.
Delacroix: Self portrait
In 1825, impressed by the work of Constable he visited England and Constables loose style influenced him greatly. His pictures became less academic until by the time he painted Andromeda in 1852 his style can be seen as a clear forerunner of the impressionist movement which started fifteen years later. Delacroix, unfortunately, did not live to see the glories of impressionism. He died in 1863 having suffered ill health for some time possible exasapated by spending a great deal of his time painting murals in drafty buildings contorted on uncomfortable scaffolding.
Mlle Rose (1817)
He painted several other nudes, although they were not a huge part of his output. Mlle Rose (1817) is a full-length, unromanticised, portrait from his student days. Such a physically accurate figure painting would not have been able to have been exhibited publicly at this time so was likely to have been a technical study.
Female nude reclining on a divan (1825)
His Female nude reclining on a divan (1825) is one of his earlier works and is of a challenging, partly foreshortened pose.
Odalisque reclining on a divan (1827)
Odalisque reclining on a divan (1827) is in an equally rather uncomfortable looking pose but it does give the figure a sense of life that a more static position would not have conveyed. It is, possibly, his only really sensual nude with the figure's draperies across her groin only emphasising the area. An odalisque (from the Turkish odalık (chambermaid)) was an assistant or apprentice concubine in the Turkish Imperial Harem. To become a concubine she would have to service the Sultan sexually but would not normally be even seen by the Sultan unless she was particularly skilled at singing, dancing or sex. Therefor the popular depiction of odalisques in nineteenth century art often has them posed in attitudes of extravagant display as if to attract attention.
Woman with a Parrot (1827)
From the same year comes Woman with a Parrot which looks forward to his orientalist paintings of five years later when he visited Morocco and, as a result produced ove 100 early examples of what would become a popular nineteenth century genre.
Death of Sardanapalus (1827)
Probably his most well known nudes, howver, can be found in his epic painting the Death of Sardanapalus (1827) and the studies for these demonstrate his academic ability. This version is in the Louvre but in 1844 he painted a smaller somewhat looser version which is now in Philadelphia. It has been interpreted as everything from a representation of the desire of the West to dominate the East (Said 1978) to an allegory of sexual possesion and male domination ( Nochlin 1983).
Death of Sardanapalus study (1827)
Based partly upon a poem by Lord Byron from 1821 the exact incident illustrated in the painting, where King Sardanapulus, last king of Assyria, faced with military defeat, decrees the destruction of all his possessions, including his concubines, isn't actually in the poem but is based on the ancient account by Diodorus Siculus.