Close up of the Emperors and Revolutionaries

SYLVIA VETTA visits the Royal Academy’s Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution exhibition.

The French and American Revolutions turned subjects into citizens and so Citizens and Kings is an inspired title for the exhibition at the Royal Academy of portraits from 1760 to 1830. This is not only the Age of Revolution but also of the Enlightenment, when great philosophers shaped the way we think.

Much of this exhibition is about power. The paintings and sculptures are of the movers and shakers of the time. Knowledge of the period will heighten visitors’ appreciation. I am increasingly drawn to good portraits in which the sitters’ lives are etched on their faces.

With full-length state portraits, the status of the subject is paramount. They are imbued with symbols. So, is it possible to discern their individuality? The answer is probably yes but in some more than others.

Possibly the most touching of all the sculptures in this show is Pigalle’s Voltaire, modelled almost naked, revealing the truth of an ageing and emaciated body, but with dignity and heroic poise.

As you enter on the far left you see Louis XVI, haughty and imperious to his fingertips. When he stood for that painting, he could not even have imagined the scene four years later when he would be looking down upon a baying crowd on his way to the guillotine.

This revolution would result, not in people’s power, but in the dictatorship of Napoleon. The octagonal gallery is dominated by Ingres’ portrait of the stony-faced emperor. Near him is Pope Pius VII, who came to crown him, until Napoleon took the crown and placed it on himself, an arrogance symbolised by references to Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor and the laurel wreath crown.

The symbols chosen for the American revolutionaries George Washington, Samuel Adams and Benjamin Franklin are the cockaded hat – instead of the crown, orb and sceptre, there are inkwell and volumes, including The Constitution and Laws of the United States.

The brilliance of this hanging is that you can compare Napoleon’s portrait with that of King George III (of the Madness of King George)who could, by contrast, be one of his wealthy subjects. Next to him is Queen Charlotte looking dignified but domesticated. You feel you could have a fairly normal conversation with them. Although we British are subjects, George, unlike his French counterparts, had to rule through Parliament.

On the right hand wall stands his gilded son George IV, looking regal from head to toe. We know the owner of the Brighton Pavilion loved wealth and show. The clash of personality with his father is there in the brushstrokes.

The advertising poster for this show is David’s Death of Marat. Charlotte Corday, who despised the terror, killed him. Hers is the bloodstained note in the hand of the corpse. In this period women are mostly confined to the domestic scene. Even the exceptional Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is painted with her child.

There is a glimmer of change for women. There are paintings by the female artist Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun. In Zoffany’s group portrait of Royal Academicians, Angelica Kaufman and Mary Moser are present on pictures on the wall. It was not thought fitting for these two academicians to be present when the nude life model was male.

Next to it is the self-portrait of the first president of the Royal Academy, Joshua Reynolds. This gallery was called The Artist : Image and Self Image. Reynolds obviously wanted to be seen an Oxford man. He is wearing his University Robes as a Doctor of Civil Law. Artists wished to be regarded as more than artisans.

The narrative of the first five galleries was superb but it becomes more contrived and confused in the final ones. For example, in the section called The Family Portrait, Maryanne Stevens cites examples of new-found affection between husband and wife. They “are epitomised in the intimate glances exchanged between the architect Charles de Wailly and his wife in Pajou’s pair of busts”. Since they are not actually looking at each other and are carved from different materials, I find it hard to believe they were made as a pair. This is a minor criticism because there is more than enough food for thought and wonder for the eyes in the first half, including a fine Goya not seen before in the UK. His portrait of the Conde de Floridablanca shows him as an Enlightenment figure, using the recently established Banco de San Carlos to fund improvement schemes like the Aragon Canal.

If you visit the RA, you can’t miss contemporary artist Anselm Keifer’s concrete towers in the courtyard. These wonderful ugly beasts also speak power in volumes.

Citizens and Kings is at the Royal Academy until April 20. For details call 020 7300 8000 or visit www.royalacademy.org.uk/citizensandkings

By |February 15th, 2007|Categories: Art, The Oxford Times|Comments Off on Close up of the Emperors and Revolutionaries