Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Murdering Madonna

France went through a series of ordeals and disillusionments after the final defeat of Napoleon in 1814.  First, there was the Bourbon restoration with a determined political and cultural reaction under King Charles X who banned the Tricolor and attempted to restore the old privileges of the nobility and the church.  Charles was toppled in the July Revolution of 1830 which would place another despot on the French throne, King Louis Phillipe, the "Bourgeois King."
Above is Delacroix's Medea, a disturbing painting on many levels.  The choice of subject is disturbing enough.  Medea, who aided Jason in finding and taking the Golden Fleece, murders the two sons she had by Jason after he abandons her.  Instead of reassuring motherhood, we have a murdering mother driven mad with the desire to revenge herself on the man who abandoned her.  Delacroix compounds the horror by showing Medea in a composition that recalls traditional allegorical personifications of Charity.  Even more disturbing, Delacroix's tightly composed pyramid of figures recalls the Madonnas of Raphael, especially the one in the Louvre known as La Belle Jardiniere.  Delacroix's Medea is as cruel as Raphael's Madonnas are tender.  The healthy happy relationship between mother and children is completely inverted.  The original religious meaning of this composition is turned inside out.
This is a painting that comes out of disillusion.  The effort to stop or turn back the clock by the Bourbon restoration ended in failure.  Too much had changed, and was not going to change back.  Likewise, the effort to rekindle the passions and expectations of the French Revolution in the July Revolution of 1830 also ended in failure and disappointment.  Symbols and images lost their meaning and their credibility.  A brilliant radical like Delacroix in 1838 could take an image that usually would be associated with all sorts of positive civilizing values from domesticity to charity, and turn it into an image of "Nature red in tooth and claw," an image of savage vitality.


Anonymous said...

As Mr le Vicomte de Tocqueville tells us the Restoration, as well as the Revolution, were mere continuations of century-old trends. Even the 1804 Code civil had been worked on by Royal Commission for half a century. Nothing or very little to do with Mr de Bonaparte.

"And yet, for all his traditionalism, Ingres was as indifferent to the original meanings of Raphael's religious imagery as Delacroix."

Revoutions and Reactions past, all Passions spent, we are all Moderns no matter how we phrase it.

Counterlight said...

"Revoutions and Reactions past, all Passions spent, we are all Moderns no matter how we phrase it."

Indeed, you are right. Hidebound reactionary figurative painter that I am, I belong to this age every bit as much as Damien Hirst.

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