Musée d'Orsay: Henry-Pierre Picou The Birth of Pindar

Henry-Pierre Picou
The Birth of Pindar

The Birth of Pindar
Henry-Pierre Picou (1824-1895)
The Birth of Pindar
Oil on canvas
H. 113; W. 147 cm
© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

La naissance de Pindare [The Birth of Pindar]

It was at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris that Henry Picou, an artist from Nantes, met Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Jean-Louis Hamon (1821-1874) and Gustave Boulanger (1824-1888). These young people shared the same aristocratic concept of the artist. They shook off a style of realism they considered trivial, by revisiting antiquity, thus earning themselves the nickname of Neo-Greeks. The Birth of Pindar, a great lyric poet from 6th century Greece, is a painting that symbolises their aesthetic.

There is a considerable difference between the attractive Antiquity imagined by Picou and the instructive, stuffy vision of the later Neo-Classical painters. There is no austerity here: the shimmering waters of the pool, the luxurious tiles and the smoking trivet give the scene a picturesque air. The circle of Muses around the young Pindar adds a playful, lively note.
Distancing themselves from any topicality, the Neo-Greeks assumed a position of haughty exclusivity. They mistrusted bourgeois and democratic utilitarianism, as well as politics and morality. In this respect, the celebration of the birth of Pindar reveals an elitist concept. The painting is part of a tradition of works that proclaim loud and long the superior genius of the artist, in the forefront of which is Ingres' Apotheosis of Homer. In The Birth of Pindar, Apollo honours the coming into the world of this child full of genius with his presence. Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry and eloquence, raises her right arm, no doubt to proclaim the news to the people. Alone, on the left, Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy, looks on darkly at this birth that offends her. Picou is expressing a glorified idea of art where the artist is a chosen one, and where his genius is a gift from Heaven. This work, therefore, is an eloquent example of the image that certain 19th century artists had of themselves as privileged and predestined.

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