- Charles Gleyre: Le genie de l'inventionOur PickBy Catherine Lepdor
- Charles Gleyre: 1806-1874Our PickBy William Hauptman
- Gleyre: étude biographique et critiqueOur PickBy Charles Clément (A catalogue raisonné and critique that resurrected Gleyre's reputation)
- Charles Gleyre Ou Les Illusions PerduesBy Rudolf and Jacques-Edouard and Rene Berger Koella
- L'academisme et ses fantasmes: le réalisme imaginaire de Charles GleyreBy Michel Thevoz
Important Art by Charles Gleyre
The mythological character of Cydippe briefly appears in Book IV of Virgil's Georgics. Assuming Virgil was Gleyre's only source, this episode, and the personage of Cleonis, have been born of the artist's imagination. The palette is of an all-over cool blueish tone that refers to Cydippe's identity as a Nereid or water nymph. Cleonis turns from Cydippe here with languid arms as if uncertain, timid or mournful. Cydippe's reassuring arm grasps him round the neck as she looks at Cleonis intently.
Cleonis's tanned body tells us of an active masculinity while Cydippe's body is pale and in a recumbent position, usually an indication of passivity. However, despite the fact she is reclined, it is Cydippe who is active here, in her expression, searching eyes and her gesture. Cleonis is sitting but seemingly paralysed by reticence. Gleyre could be attempting to portray the "dangerous wiles" of woman operating on the unsuspecting sincerity of men. Or this could be an exercise in the blurring of the line between masculinity and femininity, as Cleonis is painted as if stultified by Cydippe's touch and gaze.
This work, which brought Gleyre brief acclaim at the 1843 Salon, blends Classicism with Romanticism. In terms of the subject-matter, and Gleyre's highly refined drawing, it belongs within the classical tradition. Yet the picture's prevailing mood is one of introspection which is in keeping with the Romantic obsession with emotion and subjectivity. The mood of the work converges on the seated man in shadow but is also evident in the depiction of the subtle light of the dying day.
The episode has not been found in mythology or ancient history and seems to have been a creation of the artist's imagination. The man is a poet, a cipher perhaps for the artist himself, as a lyre lies on the ground next to him. He is slumped over while he watches the departing boat which catches the last of the sunlight, while he is in shadow. Large in scale given his proximity to the viewer, the poet is shrouded in dark tones that obscure his muscularity and which could be analogous to his waning creative powers. The ensign and flags of the boat show the direction of the wind as the muses of poetry and song drift away, leaving the bereft poet to his saturnine mood of self-contemplation. His darkness can also be read as blindness which doubles the painting's meaning. It can refer to the inability to render eternal truths through art and to the mythical blindness of Homer. This twofold significance of Gleyre's dark poet brings out a certain pathos: rather than the trope of the seer-poet who is physically blind such as Homer, this poet's blindness is barren. There is a similar contrast between the song-making of the departing muses; their faces enlivened and one of whom looks to the sky with a wreathed head, and the poet. Bearing down upon the poet is the sole adornment of an almost eclipsed moon that rhymes with the light fading from his face.
Conceived originally by Gleyre after a near-hallucinatory experience on the banks of the Nile, he wrote in his journal at the time that "the triple harmony of forms, colours and sounds was complete". The picture's fading subtle light, the carefully rendered volumes of the figures and the music-making of the muses show an attempt to recapture the synesthetic experience. The art historian William Hauptman has written "the boat filled with ghostly and spiritually distant figures brings the classic-romantic conflict into a telling unity and at the same time appeals to the persistent taste in France for introspective reflection and poetic reverie in painting".
Brightly lit, for the most part, beneath a dramatic sky of movement that seems to imitate the sacred ritual's dancing, is a scene of the devotees. The sheer rock face of the background masks the ceremony from the broader countryside and emphasises its secrecy. As has been noted that Gleyre has, unusually for such a scene, excluded icons of masculinity: there is neither Silenus nor the typical male satyrs of the woodland. Bacchus himself is only present in the form of his bronze statue on the column to the left. This religious and intoxicated fervour is here the preserve of women. This divergence from conventional depictions of the subject is symbolised by the central dancer who holds Bacchus's inverted staff (thyrsus), its pinecone pointed to the ground. The composition is in the arrangement of a classical frieze in a narrative that follows the stages of activity from right to left. From the right where we see the two seated bacchantes playing music, to the central dancing group, the eye moves to the left where inebriation has taken its toll; except for the incense-burning priestess who stands upright in front of the column of Bacchus.
The priestess along with the seated pipe player (second from the right) are the only two characters who peer out at the spectator. This creates a tension between the exclusive nature of the clandestine ritual within the pictorial world and the visibility of Gleyre's portrayal of it to the spectators of the painting. An unnamed critic has remarked of the work's "choreography, which is both noble and unbridled, frenzied and rhythmic". But for all of the "frenzy", Gleyre's orderly and schematic composition, which seems to crystallise in the thyrsus-bearing dancer, confers the balanced nobility that the critic referred to. The artist seems to delicately counterpoise reason and its subversion.
The Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne says of the work: "There is no wild eroticism with the Swiss master, just partially denuded bodies bestowing a delicately sensual note on the scene; no frantic savagery, but instead a severe ritual. Gleyre renews the iconography by turning the bacchanal into a cultic and mystic moment. But if his Antiquity is meditative, it is not so dreamlike as to overlook even the slightest archaeological detail, which he revisits in the light of contemporary research, particularly with regard to polychrome sculpture".