It’s hard to conceive what life – and death – must have been like in the early nineteenth century. With more people crowding into cities, epidemics of cholera and other diseases were commonplace, and could wipe out whole communities in but a few days. Public executions and even mutilation still took place, and anyone living to a ripe old age would have seen many of their kin die long before they did.
Most narrative painters seem to have escaped into classical stories from myth and legend, but Antoine Wiertz (1806–1865) could not flee from the ugly reality of the world he saw around him.
He started his studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Antwerp when he was only fourteen, and came second in the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1828, winning that at his second attempt four years later. He then studied in Rome until early 1837, completing his first major history painting before he returned to his family home in Liège, Belgium.
Between 1836 and 1844, Wiertz painted several very similar versions of that work, The Greeks and Trojans Fighting over the Body of Patroclus, of which this is the small copy now in Antwerp.
The story of Patroclus is drawn from Homer’s epic Iliad. Patroclus was the Greek hero Achilles’ closest friend, and brother-in-arms. When Trojan forces looked to be threatening the Greek ships, Patroclus persuaded Achilles to let him lead a select force into combat against the Trojans, to try to turn the tide. Achilles lent Patroclus his armour, which then of course made Patroclus appear to be Achilles when in combat.
When Patroclus had beaten the Trojans back from the ships, Achilles ordered him to disengage, but Patroclus ignored that order to pursue the Trojans back to the gates of the city. Apollo then intervened to impair Patroclus’ thinking, which allowed him to be struck by a spear, following which Hector killed Patroclus.
Contrary to all accepted practice and the honour of the warrior, the Trojans did not want to leave Patroclus’ body for the Greeks to take for funeral rites. Hector stripped it of armour, and tried to steal the body. Ajax, assisted by Menelaus, fought off Hector and other Trojans, and put Patroclus’ body in a chariot to take it back to the Greek camp. It is that scene – the fight between Hector and his Trojans on the one hand, and Ajax, Menelaus and supporting Greeks, over the body of Patroclus – which Wiertz shows so vividly.
Wiertz continued to make conventional history paintings, and to paint portraits, but also experimented with his paint medium. Disliking the surface sheen of conventional oil paint, even before it is varnished, he appears to have invented what later became known as peinture à l’essence, as adopted by Degas.
He most probably blotted the oil out of regular oil paint, then mixed it with turpentine and petrol, which he applied to stretched but unprimed ‘Holland’ fabric.
The Homeric Struggle (1853) is one of his largest works painted entirely using this technique, which, in the absence of sufficient drying oil binder, inevitably forms a very weak and powdery paint layer which readily flakes from the support. I suspect that Degas both saw Wiertz’s paintings and read the latter’s account of the technique.
As its title is not normally understood to refer to any specific incident in Homer’s Iliad, this probably shows a composite of different incidents during that epic.
In the mid-1840s, Wiertz painted a pretty model whose name he gives as Rosine, as in his Rosine à sa Toilette (Rosine at her Dressing Table) (c 1847). A traditional excuse for a nude, there is little that is remarkable about this painting. But he also got Rosine to model for his most famous work, which she must have found strange.
For in his Two Young Girls, or The Beautiful Rosine (1847), she stands in a similar state of undress, facing a skeleton slung from a metal eye screwed into the top of its skull. She looks up at the bones of the face, and the vacant eye sockets, a faint wry smile on her face, as we are left to ponder the artist’s meaning.
Wiertz had painted Rosine shortly after his mother’s death, and progressively became more obsessed with death. Premature Burial (1854) visits a not uncommon dread in the nineteenth century: that of being presumed dead, buried, and then recovering to find yourself in a coffin.
This did happen, particularly during cholera epidemics, as indicated by the lettering on the opening coffin. The profound shock resulting from choleric dehydration could make the pulse and breathing so feeble as to escape detection; with hundreds or thousands of dead, many were dumped hurriedly into mass-produced coffins and so into mass graves. And a very few managed to survive.
Coffins were designed with bells which could be rung by a recovered person. Wiertz’s victim is left with the nightmare scenario of trying to make it back to the land of the living.
In other paintings, he shows execution by guillotine, suicide by pistol, a starving mother dismembering and eating her infant, and other gruesome scenes. And when not showing us the facts of death, he is more than happy to moralise.
Of his apparently moralising paintings, I find The Reader of Novels (1853) his most curious. A shapely and completely naked woman lies on her back, a book held above her face, reading avidly. Her bed is in a small compartment, a large mirror hanging above her lower body and legs. Her clothing is hung on the foot of the bed, and a floral garland on the top of the mirror. Beside her on the bed are several other books, and the hand of a horned figure is reaching up to those books from below and behind a curtain.
This has all the elements of what later became the ‘problem picture’, a visual riddle which the viewer was invited to solve by building a narrative which fitted the various clues. It could just be dismissing the reading of novels by women as a morally dangerous activity, but it seems too elaborate for that. I wonder if the woman is part of a ‘live peep show’, and passing the time by reading, perhaps, or just a prostitute in her booth in a brothel (although the bed seems rather small to accommodate any partner).
Whatever it meant, it was badly received when exhibited, and deemed pornographic.
The Young Sorceress (1857) is a very late depiction of the long-standing fable of witchcraft: the young woman is here astride her broomstick, being egged on by the spells of the old and wizened witch behind.
In his own life and death, Wiertz seems to have been part of the strange world that he painted: when he died in his studio, his body had to be embalmed according to ancient Egyptian procedures.
If you want to see most of Wiertz’s paintings, he managed to persuade the Belgian government to turn his last studio into a state-owned museum. Strangely, it is almost opposite the European Parliament in Brussels.
Jeffery Howe’s biography and images of paintings.