Progression of Art
Cleonis and Cydippe
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".
Oil on canvas - Louvre
The Dance of the Bacchantes
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".
Oil on canvas - Vaud Museum of Fine Arts, Lausanne
Romans Under the Yoke
Gleyre's growing reputation drew attention from his homeland and secured him this commission depicting the celebrated victory of the Helvetians over the Romans at the Battle of Agendicum (modern-day Agen) in 107 BCE. The image is emblematic of the independent spirit of the Swiss people who, over the centuries had suffered Habsburg, French, Russian and Austrian invaders.
In the foreground, stooping soldiers pass beneath the yoke. This contrasts with the huge and sturdy oak wrapped with captured Roman shields, and the upward gaze of the wreathed priest in the right middle ground who seems to ascribe the victory to providence. Perhaps Divico, the leader of the Tigurini tribe and orchestrator of the triumph in the field, is on horseback raising his sword obscuring his face on the left. Certainly his gesture portrays a martial disposition. The obscuring of his face by Gleyre could mean the canvas is not a commemoration of a great leader but rather an entire people's love of freedom.
In this peopled scene of raised gazes, swords and standards, the Roman ensign lies on the ground broken and to be trodden upon by the prisoners. Not only does Gleyre, with the picture's sense of jubilation, sound the note of Swiss independence, it also includes a note of compassion as evident in the right foreground where a child offers a wet cloth wrapped on a branch to succour the defeated. This is in contradistinction to the raised severed heads of the Roman generals Longinus and Piso Caesonius beneath which the prisoners pass, grisly symbols of a fierceness when pushed to war. The Roman academic Penelope Uchicago adds that "Although the Battle of Burdigala is thought to have taken place on the border of Aquitania (near Agen on the Garonne)" the painted scene was shifted to "Montreux on the eastern shore of Lake Geneva, allowing the artist to depict in the background the mountains of the Dents du Midi across the lake - and to portray what historically would have been constructed of spears as a literal ox yoke".
Oil on canvas - Vaud Museum of Fine Arts, Lausanne
Hercules and Omphale
Hercules's punishment for "inadvertent murder" was to stay in the house of Omphale, a Lydian princess, for a year and attend to duties seen as womanly. So here Gleyre depicts the flawed hero spinning thread sitting at the feet of a watchful Omphale. In some renderings of the tale, Omphale was said to wear Hercules's skin of the Nemean lion and he her clothing. Gleyre feminizes Hercules by giving him an amber robe. But Omphale retains her female drapery, alluding to not so much a gender role reversal as to the humiliation of the masculine hero. Hercules's bronzed complexion together with the delicate shadows of external foliage on the columns to the rear signal his life of action in the mythic realm while Omphale's pallor situates her always in the interior space which Hercules now inhabits. Yet he sits on the skin of the lion, his club rests on the floor to the right and the Doric order of columns, indicative of strength, tells of the transience of this punishment. With his resumption of the male role at the end of the year, the couple were said to have married.
Gleyre's friend and prominent critic Charles Clément remarked of Gleyre as "a talent whose strength and severity pleases both the demanding and the delicate, and which has at the same time the charm and grace that seduces the crowd". This picture epitomises the delicate balance of erudition and force on one hand, and a certain elegance of colour and gesture on the other.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Neuchâtel
Just as in the Dance of the Bacchantes, where Gleyre equated religious fervour with the feminine, here the mysteries of artistic inspiration are available only to the feminine, just as in Evening. Known in ancient times as "The Poetess" or "The Tenth Muse", Sappho's reputation was almost peerless. In concord with the latter epithet, Gleyre has placed in the left background an effigy of Athena, sister of the Muses, as protector of the poet's art.
Sappho stands in a confident and self-possessed stance, turning away from the viewer while pouring a cup of wine. The viewer is not privy to her facial expression, nor whether this moment is a prelude to, or the aftermath of, her composing. Either way, her lyre sits nearby on the couch. This uncertainty regarding her practice - her turning from us and the ambiguity of the moment - is perhaps fashioned by Gleyre as not only inscrutable to the viewer but also to him. In this case, Sappho's legendary inspired poetic vision also implies the melancholic self-doubt of Gleyre about his own status and legacy. It is significant that Gleyre chose not to paint Sappho performing.
Writing of Gleyre, the art historian Albert Boime said, "he deliberately elevated the nonepisodic (sic) to the level of grande peinture, laying aside the drama and heroism of antiquity in favour of a more prosaic moment". In this moment, the near-mythological status of both Sappho's gift and tragic stature is conveyed more by Gleyre's treatment of subtle, almost clouded, colour tones and the drawing of the human form than by the unremarkable triviality of Sappho's pouring of wine.
Oil on canvas - Vaud Museum of Fine Arts, Lausanne