Joan of Arc, Juliet, Desdemona... The Museum of Romantic Life's tribute to these fantasized and unfortunate heroines of the 19th century

Joan of Arc, Juliet, Desdemona… The Museum of Romantic Life’s tribute to these fantasized and unfortunate heroines of the 19th century

The theme of romantic heroines had never been treated. Until September 4, they are on display at an exhibition at the Museum of Romantic Life in Paris. Gaëlle Rio and Elodie Kuhn, curators of the event, looked for them among the works of the 19th century and analyzed the way in which they were represented. Through just over 80 works, the museum offers a panorama of female heroism: heroines of the past, of fiction, and of the stage.

Here, no victorious female figures, acting or on the battlefield. “The 19th century is not the century of women, it is not a time when the law emancipates them”, explains Elodie Kuhn. The Napoleonic Civil Code of 1804 undermined the condition of women by establishing the legal incapacity of wives. Result ? The representations of heroines made by artists – men or women – are steeped in historical context: “there is a majority way of showing the feminine, which says a lot about society. The heroines are shown undergoing a destiny that is beyond them.”

Often, they are prey to their amorous passion: they love and die of loving. “Drama is one of the springs of the story of these heroines. This is what interests romantic artists”, analysis Gaëlle Rio. They draw inspiration from their stories and make them the subjects of their work. The painters Eugène Delacroix, Anne-Louis Girodet, Antoine-Jean Gros present them with diaphanous skin: “It’s a physical aspect linked to the fragility of the body, but also to that of the spirit. It resonates with the precariousness of their destiny”, notes the commissioner. Impossible love, despair, melancholy, five romantic heroines in all their states.

Sappho, the Greek poetess

Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835), "Sappho in Leucate", 1801, oil on canvas, 122 x 100cm, Bayeux, Baron-Gérard Museum of Art and History.   (JEAN POPOVITCH / RMN-GP / RMN-GP PHOTO AGENCY)

The exhibition opens with a painting of Sappho (or Sapho) in Leucate painted by Antoine-Jean Gros (1801). This Greek poet of the 7th century BC. J.-C. became known for his love poems sent to another woman. Centuries later, the artists of the 19th century seized on her story and made her a romantic heroine whose story they rewrote: she committed suicide out of love for a man. This new version of the story is disseminated by Alphonse de Lamartine in his book New poetic meditations (1823). “In people’s imagination, Sappho is a mythological character when she really existed!”, comments Gaëlle Rio.

As in the poems of Lamartine, Antoine-Jean Gros depicts the moment preceding the drama: the poetess is about to throw herself into the void, one foot already balanced. “The romantics often choose to represent the moment when the story changes, when the story gets carried away.” The painting brings together characteristics specific to the artistic movement: a wide view of the horizon, a light playing with chiaroscuro. The heroine has loose hair and wears a white shirt revealing her curves: “In the 19th century, women did not go out with their hair or dressed in this way, it was an intimate outfit.”

Héloïse, the torn lover

"Héloïse embracing monastic life", Jean-Antoine Laurent, (1812).  Views of the exhibition "romantic heroines" at the Museum of Romantic Life.  (FABRICE GABORIAU)

Like Sappho, Héloïse also really existed. This intellectual of the twelfth century marries in secret with her 36-year-old teacher, Abelard. When their union is discovered, he is emasculated and she enters the convent: “an impossible love”, notes Elodie Kuhn. In his table Héloïse embracing monastic life (1812), Jean-Antoine Laurent shows the young girl looking at a portrait of Abélard that a nun takes away from her. “This canvas shows the typical tension of the romantic heroine, between what the heart wants and the expectations of society and religion.”

Héloïse’s story is also disseminated through Epinal images: series of popular prints in bright colors published by the printer Jean-Charles Pellerin. “At the time, people might not have seen the great paintings of the Romantics, but still knew Héloïse.” The young girl is represented on bed sets, tapestries. “A romantic heroine is necessarily a character already known to everyone, her story broadcast on many mediums”, justifies Elodie Kuhn. Bronzes representing these women, used to decorate bourgeois interiors, are also presented throughout the exhibition.

Ophelia, the beautiful deceased

Léopold Burthe (1823- 1860), Ophelia 1852, oil on canvas, 62.3 x 100.3 cm Sainte-Croix Museum, Poitiers, France.  (Christian Vignaud - Muse of Poitiers)

In 1827, Shakespeare’s plays were performed at the Théâtre de l’Odéon by an English troupe. Romantic artists attended such as Eugène Delacroix, Alexandre Dumas and Hector Berlioz. All are upset by the female characters and in particular that of Ophélie who drowns in a stream after the assassination of her father by Hamlet. Léopold Burthe painted it in 1852 (Ophelia). “This painting exudes great serenity while the subject is absolutely tragic. There is this bucolic setting, these flowers, all this water”, observes Elodie Kuhn, “and then a breast”.

Death is eroticized. “It’s the topos of the beautiful deceased. At the time, we considered that painting a young girl dying was a very poetic subject.” Atala – heroine of Chateaubriand – painted by Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson is also covered with a veil revealing the shape of her breasts. “There is an ambivalence: these heroines give up, it’s society’s victory. Despite everything, in the performance, there is an eroticization that is not linked to the story or the morality that is transmitted.”

Marie Taglioni, the Sylphide dancer

Lepaulle Francois Gabriel Guillaume (1804-1886), "Marie Taglioni and her brother Paul in the ballet La Sylphide", 1834, oil on canvas 128.5 cm x 96.5 cm, Museum of Decorative Arts.  (RMN-Grand Palais / Bulloz Agency)

In a last part, the exhibition focuses on the heroines represented on stage. “In the 19th century, there is a very strong association between the character and his interpreter”, assures Gaëlle Rio. The actresses, dancers and singers become contemporary heroines. “There is a form of stardom carried by the press”, adds his colleague. Among the artists, the dancer Marie Tagliono, known for her role as Sylphide is sculpted in bronzes like Sappho. “A star !”, laughs Elodie Kuhn.

Ballet The sylph marked the history of dance. Created by Marie Taglioni’s own father, the choreography features a little winged female genius – inspired by Scandinavian mythology – who falls in love with a young Scotsman who is about to get married. For the first time, the performer dances en pointe all the way and wears an innovative muslin dress: the tutu. To observe it, the ballerina no longer has any earthly gravity. “This ideal of fragility in classical dance comes from romantic ballet.”

Marie Malibran, the star singer

Henri Decaisne (1799-1852) Maria Malibran in the role of Desdemona, 1830, oil on canvas, 138 x 105 cm, Carnavalet Museum, Paris.  (Carnavalet Museum, CCØ Paris Museums / Carnavalet Museum – History of Paris)

Marie Malibran is an opera singer, supreme art in the 19th century. “There is a kind of hierarchy of professions. The singers embodying heroines have a much greater posterity than the dancers or the actresses”, details Gaëlle Rio. On the painting by Henri Decaisne, Marie Malibran as Desdemona (1830), the diva is depicted just before being suffocated by her husband under stormy skies. “The choice of meteors is not random. In all romantic paintings, they prefigure drama.”

Strange coincidence, Marie Malibran died of a fall from a horse, in the prime of life like Desdemona. What further strengthen the link between the heroine and the performer, and create the myth around the singer. The exhibition focuses on the posterity of these heroines: what becomes of them once the romantic period is over? Excerpts from contemporary operas and feature films are shown in the last room of the exhibition, such as Romeo + Juliet by Baz Luhrmann. “The film of a generation”, slips Elodie Kuhn. Romantic heroines are still rooted in our collective imaginations.

Exhibition “Romantic heroines” until September 4th. Museum of Romantic Life. 16 rue Chaptal, 75009 Paris. Prices: from 7 to 9 euros. 01 55 31 95 67.

The exhibition poster "romantic heroines", until September 4, 2022 at the Museum of Romantic Life.   (Museum of Romantic Life.)

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