Musée d'Orsay: Charles Gleyre (1806-1874). The reformed Romantic

Charles Gleyre (1806-1874). The reformed Romantic

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An archaeological approach to landscapes

Charles GleyrePentheus, Hunted by the Maenads© Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler
“Landscapes are good for the youth who haven’t yet had their First Communion or for old people who no longer have sufficient imagination to invent subjects and paint figures.” However, one should not be deceived by this condescending aphorism. Charles Gleyre took a strong interest in landscapes provided they featured the ancient world. Only mountains, volcanoes and deserts devoid of any trace of human development were of artistic interest. He likes painting memories of Egyptian and Turkish landscapes which reveal the effects of soft afternoon light on rocky outcrops which bear witness to a turbulent telluric past.

Gleyre drew on this eastern geological base for The Great Flood, a sublime vision of the dawn of time. The panoramic format and the use of almost phosphorescent pastel pigments which illuminate the surface of the oil paint were perhaps inspired by a diorama featuring this subject which opened in Paris in 1844.

Gleyre continued to experiment, even boldly producing sketches for the first prehistoric landscapes in Western painting, in which he tries to reconcile the story of Genesis with discoveries in the new discipline of palaeontology. Gleyre drew for the last time on the dramatic power of an unsettling wild landscape to bring to life a primitive Greek world in which Pentheus, King of Thebes, was massacred.

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