If you have ever visited the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, you will probably have noticed a huge canvas succinctly described as ‘knight in shining armour surrounded by naked young women in floral meadow’.
This is most probably your only exposure to the narrative paintings of Georges Rochegrosse, and it gives a most misleading impression of his works. This article and the next attempt a more balanced account of the paintings of one of the last formal narrative painters before modernism swept the world.
Le Chevalier aux Fleurs (The Knight of the Flowers) (1894) is not just frivolous chivalry and a bevy of Playboy bunnies, but a serious painting which was shown at the Salon in Paris in 1894 to critical acclaim. It was bought by the French state for the Musée du Luxembourg, and was later transferred to the Musée d’Orsay. Its theme is, surprisingly, chastity and resistance to temptation, and it is based on the popular opera Parsifal, which had been so successful at Bayreuth over the previous twelve years.
Wagner’s last opera (1882) was loosely based on a thirteenth-century German epic poem about the Arthurian legend of Parzival (Percival) and his quest for the Holy Grail. The moment chosen by Rochegrosse is the opening of Act 2, Scene 2. Parsifal, the knight and hero, is at Klingsor’s magic castle, where Klingsor summons his enchanted knights to fight Parsifal.
When Parsifal has overcome Klingsor’s knights and put them to flight, he strays into the Flowermaiden garden. Klingsor calls on the seductive sorceress Kundry to seek young Parsifal out and seduce him. Parsifal then finds himself in a beautiful garden, full of flowers, and surrounded by the beautiful and seductive Flowermaidens. They call him and entwine their bodies around him in their efforts to seduce him, but he resists their temptations and remains chaste.
Rochegrosse shows this event in a mixture of styles, with which he felt he expressed the central idea of the scene, that of Parsifal resisting temptation by being “obsessed with the ideal”. There are elements of symbolism in pictorial elements, but the whole painting is realist, with some Impressionist effects in the garden and landscape.
In terms of narrative, it is similar to the beautiful tableaux which were so characteristic of the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers, which Rochegrosse was here attempting to emulate. He chose a scene relatively light in action, lacking in strong narrative, and kept clear of any climax or peripeteia. But it is both comfortingly moralistic and delicately carnal.
Georges Rochegrosse (1859–1938) was brought up in a literary environment, his household being visited by the likes of Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Victor Hugo, and Flaubert. He decided that he would paint, though, and started his training at the Académie Julian in 1871. He continued in the studios of Jules Joseph Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger, before going to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He entered the Prix de Rome twice (in 1880 and 1881) without success.
His first painting to be accepted for the Salon was Vitellius traîné dans les rues de Rome par la populace (1882), which I will show and discuss in the next article. The following year he started to travel in Europe. In his early career he concentrated on history painting, and showed signs of developing symbolism.
His Perseus and Andromeda is a beautiful watercolour which is unusual for an established narrative painter. I have already detailed the full story here, but in any case Rochegrosse shows us a moment long after its climax: Perseus has rescued Andromeda by unchaining her from the rock, and by killing Cetus the sea monster.
Here, he rides off on Pegasus (following the later variant of the story from the Middle Ages), to marry her. It almost lacks pictorial links with the past or future, and like Le Chevalier aux Fleurs has tenuous and weak narrative. We are not even shown the head of Medusa, the sword with which Perseus killed Cetus, his winged sandals, or his magic helmet from Hades. The only clues which might suggest that Perseus has slayed Cetus are red blood in the sea, and some on the left side of Pegasus.
The year that Le Chevalier aux Fleurs was impressing the Salon, Rochegrosse travelled to Algeria for the first time, and was smitten by orientalism. This provoked a series of paintings in which narrative took a back seat to the exotic.
The Palace Entertainment is spectacular painting which could easily be mistaken as the work of Jean-Léon Gérôme, his contemporary, although by this time (the period 1894-1914) Rochegrosse was often far more painterly in his style. It shows a dancer with musical group entertaining some Algerian men, her dance involving a pair of short swords. Beautifully composed and painted, it is about atmosphere and the exotic, not story.
His The Slave and the Lion travels further east, to the ancient civilisations of the Middle East. A nearly naked woman slave is seen fanning a lion which is asleep on the carpet, in front of a huge divan occupied by her bearded master. Another woman, elaborately dressed, looks on from her seat on the edge of the divan.
The nineteenth century was a period in which there were many major archaeological discoveries in Egypt and the Middle East. These fired the imagination of several artists, including both Gérôme and Rochegrosse.
It is his The Spoils of War which gives a glimpse of the other side of Rochegrosse’s paintings. One of the victors sits on top of a heap of objects robbed from the conquered, holding a cane or rod in both hands. He looks down at three women: one is almost completely enveloped in dull green and brown robes, and holds her hands to her face in grief. A second, dressed as a fine courtesan, is slumped sleeping, her hands bound in front of her. She rests against a nearly naked woman, bare to her waist, who is also asleep with her hands tied.
Around them are the remains of the sacking, with a blood-stain prominent on the wall at the far left.
In the next article I will show and discuss his narrative paintings of that other side, of gruesome death.