Arts and Entertainment

Great Art Cities Explained: Paris

In the 19th and early 20th centuries Paris was 
the world’s art capital. The city’s art schools,   museums, salons and streets, attracted 
painters and sculptors from everywhere.   Major art movements like Impressionism, 
Symbolism, Art Nouveau, Fauvism, Cubism,   Art Deco and Abstract Art all began in Paris. 
It was in Paris that modern art was born.   Art is of course not created in a vacuum: 
Artists are influenced by other artists,   who in turn are influenced by other artists, in 
a long chain of connections. In this episode we   look at those interconnected lives through three 
major artists and visit their studios in Paris.   Studios still open to the public, which give 
us an insight into how they lived and worked.   The apartment and studio of the French romantic 
painter Eugene Delacroix is now a museum. It has   over one thousand artworks by Delacroix. Paintings, 
drawings, prints, writings and objects that belonged   to him. Delacroix grew up during the age of 
Napoleon. His father was the minister of foreign   affairs, but most historians agree that Delacroix’s 
real father was the diplomat and notorious   womaniser Charles Maurice de Talyrand. At the age 
of 17, Delacroix apprenticed at the studio of   the conservative painter Pierre Narcisse Guerin, 
whose work of 1816 almost certainly influenced   Delacroix’s later masterpiece. At the same time he 
began to study in the Louvre, copying the paintings   of Veronesi, Titian and Rubens with other young 
painters. This was not copying merely to imitate,   THIS is how artists learnt technique. In Guerin’s 
studio Delacroix met Theodor Gericault who would   become a close friend and his major influence. 
As I show in my Gericault video, he began to work on   The Raft of the Medusa in 1818. Delacroix watched
Gericault work on the massive canvas,   and the dramatic brushwork, daring composition AND 
choice of subject matter made a deep impression   on Delacroix. He even served as a model for one of 
the figures in the foreground. In Delacroix’s first   major canvas of 1822, the structure is strikingly 
similar to Gericault’s raft, down to the figures   which anchor the pyramid shape. The same figures 
which remind us, not just of Gericault, but of the twisted bodies and drama of Michelangelo.  
And it marked the artist as part of the new modern style   that would soon be called – “Romanticism”. This was a 
movement away from neo-classicism, with its emphasis   on classical antiquity. And instead focused 
on the individual – imagination – and emotions.   France was facing turbulent times. 
Mechanisation and urbanisation, plus revolutions,   counter revolutions and civil unrest 
dominated the first part of the 19th century.   Romanticism’s focus on individualism was a 
reaction against these major social changes.  Delacroix led this artistic movement and “Liberty leading 
the People” is a prime example of Romanticism.   The revolution in the painting is not the 
famous 1789 one of 40 years earlier, but the   1830 revolution that took place just days before 
he started the painting! Paris was a battleground   and the events unfolded on Delacroix’s doorstep. 
The artist meticulously planned and researched   the painting, and one of the museum’s 
highlights is a stunning painted study   for “Liberty leading the People”. It is owned 
privately and on loan to the museum temporarily.   He used studies to recycle ideas and this 
one made four years before “Liberty” includes   an agitated figure leading a crowd behind 
her. He made numerous drawings exploring   both of the main elements: The liberty figure 
and the pile of wounded and suffering bodies.   Unlike classical representations of Liberty which 
show the goddess as immortal and untouchable,  Delacroix portrays her as both an allegorical 
goddess figure and a robust woman of the people,   in the heat of the action. The mound of bodies acts 
as a kind of pedestal from which Liberty strides,   barefoot and bare-breasted out of the 
canvas and into the space of the viewer.   “The Haywain” by John Constable is an image so 
nostalgic, so familiar, that we forget how radical   and influential it was. Its use of colour and 
loose brush strokes were a sensation when it was   shown at the Paris salon in 1824, and we know both 
Gericault and Delacroix saw it. In a departure from   the smooth paint surfaces of Neo-classical works, 
Delacroix used a Constable technique: “Flossing”.   This process involves applying short delicate 
strokes of colour on top of the finished paint   surface to create light and movement. Constable 
also revolutionized the painting of shadow   by representing it as composed of strands of 
colour. Another technique Delacroix would adopt.  The French government bought liberty in 1830 but 
officials deemed its glorification of revolution   too “inflammatory” and removed it from public 
view. It was rarely seen again until 1874 when   it was transferred to the Louvre. Inspired 
by other works, “Liberty leading the People”   would itself become influential. It was the 
inspiration for Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”   AND the industry that would follow. Later, it 
also inspired the Statue of L iberty in New York.   Delacroix’s paintings would profoundly 
shape the work of artists who followed him.   His experimentation with 
colour theory liberated art.   He showed that no hue existed on its own, it 
would always be altered by complementary or   contrasting colour. So it’s no surprise that Delacroix
was a major influence on Vincent van Gogh.   Paul Cezanne also studied Delacroix’s use 
of colour, and we can see the impact if we   look at the two artists work together. Both 
followed in the tradition of classical nudes.   The pose of the bathers are similar and in both 
images the figures merge with the landscape.   The visible brush strokes favored by Delacroix
are even more dramatic in cezanne’s painting. At Delacroix’s funeral in 1863, people said that his 
death marked the end of an era in French art.   yet even as Delacroix passed into history – 
a new generation of rebellious artists   had begun to create work that engaged 
with the past but look to the future. From a poverty stricken childhood to a life 
as a circus acrobat, from a career as a popular   artist model to becoming an artist herself. 
Suzanne Valadon lived a life so extraordinary,   it reads like fiction. She was born to an 
unmarried washerwoman in a provincial village.   Her education was on the streets, where unlike 
her upper class contemporaries Valadon defined   her own identity – outside of prevailing social 
norms – and painted more challenging pictures.   Her house and studio, now the Musée de Montmartre, 
witnessed a real who’s who of artists passing   through its doors. Valadon knew virtually every 
great painter of the late 19th and early 20th   centuries. Amadeo Modigliani would call her 
“The only woman in Paris who understands me”.   Her son was the painter, Maurice Utrillo, who was so 
devoted to her that he signed most of his canvases   “Maurice Utrillo – V” – for Valadon, and her friends 
Pablo Picasso André Derain and Georges Braque   attended her funeral. She was the lover
of the composer Erik Satie and the painters Henri de  Toulouse Lautrec and Pierre Auguste Renoir.
Renoir rented a studio in the same house as Valadon   where he painted this masterpiece, as well as “The Swing” 
which he executed in what are now the Musée de   Montmartre gardens. At just five feet tall Valadon 
was tiny, but her striking blue eyes, creamy skin   and golden hair, made her a popular artist model. 
The most famous paintings featuring Valadon are by Renoir. In “Dance at Bugaval” she was pregnant with her 
son – the future painter Maurice Utrillo, possibly   fathered by Renoir. She posed for this painting but 
rumours of an affair so incensed Renoir’s fiancee   Aline Charigot, that she scraped Valadon’s face off 
the canvas and made Renoir replace it with her own.  It was said that Valadon learned to paint by 
observing the techniques of the leading artists   she modelled for. You can see in Valadon’s work 
the flat and solid colours of Paul Gauguin, the   strong outlines of Edgar Degas and the flat “fauvist” 
colours of Henri Matisse. But Valadon, too poor to   study art, was a naturally gifted artist with a raw 
talent – as her early work shows. Valadon showed five   drawings at the paris salon of 1894. She was the 
first woman painter to ever have work admitted.   The disadvantages of being a working-class 
woman was an advantage when it came to art,   she had a freedom that for female upper class 
artists was impossible. She often painted   women engaged in everyday activities such as 
bathing, and although these scenes were often   depicted by Valadon’s male contemporaries, it was 
unusual and even shocking for a female artist to   paint nudes. Her images of women were generally 
truthful rather than idealised representations.   Valodon’s masterpiece shows a full-figured 
confident woman lounging on a daybed. She is   a liberated modern woman who smokes, reads and 
most importantly isn’t sexually available.   The composition references Eduard Manet’s “Olympia”, 
itself modeled after Titian’s “Venus of Urbino”.   But unlike both men’s nudes, Valadon’s
subject is not an idealised “pin-up” Suzanne Valadon forged  a successful career in a man’s world and raised important questions about ageing, beauty and female desire. By the time of her death, Valadon had made 
over 450 oil paintings, but although she had a very   successful commercial career as an artist, she is 
still not as well known today as she should be. Constantin Brâncuși – or Brancusi was a Romanian 
peasant born in a small farming village,   who through sheer talent and determination 
became THE pioneer of modern sculpture.   Today Brancusi’s Paris studio is a work of art 
in its own right – it is an exact reconstruction   of Brancusi’s original atelier. In 1956 Brancusi 
left his entire studio (including its contents)   to the French state – on condition that the 
studio would remain precisely how he left it.  This was important. For Brancusi the 
relationship between his sculptures   and the space that contains them was “key”. 
From his early studies in Bucharest he had   placed sculptures in a tight spatial relationship, 
creating new works which he called “Mobile groups”.   The works bounce off each other and create a 
new dialogue and this is how we see them today.   Brancusi changed the course of sculpture 
from what he called “Beefsteak and Muscle”   to geometric abstraction, and would be a 
major influence on artists like Henry Moore,   Barbara Hepworth and Isamu Noguchi. The artist 
Ellsworth Kelly met Brancusi in Paris in 1953,   and minimalism would evolve from the ideas 
first developed in Brancus’s sculptural forms.   As a child in Romania, he had a natural talent for 
carving wooden tools and we can see this skill in   his later practice as a sculptor, who carved his 
own work directly from wood or stone. The plinths,   pedestals and homemade furniture made by Brancusi 
that we see in his atelier, were part of the work ,  and as important an artistic product as his 
sculptures. After training in Bucharest where   he won many awards, Brancusi set off on a legendary 
18-month walk from Bucharest to Paris and arrived   the same year Picasso, Modigliani and Chagall did – 1904.
He worked as an assistant to Auguste Rodin,   carving in marble from Rodin’s clay models, 
but he left after only two months saying:   “Nothing grows under the shadow of big trees”. 
Brancusi rejected Rodin’s practice of making   clay models – but leaving the final product to be 
cast or completed by a team of skilled labourers.   Instead Brancusi preferred to do the work himself,
working directly on a piece of stone or wood.   This practice was followed 
by artists like Henry Moore,   and “direct carving” became seen as one of 
the fundamental ideas of modern sculpture.   In his early art we can see traces of Rodin, 
but we also see a rarely discussed influence   Medado Rosso, and Brancusi himself acknowledged 
that Romanian folk art – in particular its wood   carvings – were important. Like many European 
artists experimenting with abstraction at the time,   Brancusi was influenced by African art. In 
particular “Kota reliquary figures” of Gabon.   Artists in the early 20th century were especially 
fascinated by the radical abstractions of the   human body in African art. Picasso had a large 
African guardian figure in his own collection,   and Giacometti also collected African art. These 
figures were a major influence on Cubism, the   dominant art form at this time, but while Picasso 
and Braque were fracturing and fragmenting forms,   Brancusi was “streamlining” them, emphasising clean 
lines, and pushing the medium of sculpture into new   unique territories. In 1913, five of Brancusi’s 
sculptures were chosen for the Armory Show   in New York, and a year later he was given 
his first ever solo show in the world.   The influential Peggy Guggenheim championed him 
(as she would later champion Jackson Pollock).   Paris may have welcomed Brancusi, but 
it was New York that made his name.   This is one of the masterpieces on display 
in Brancus’s atelier in Paris. The model was   his lover, the Hungarian artist Margit Pogany, who 
described sitting for Brancusi over several weeks.   Each time he created a perfect likeness in clay 
she said he would destroy it and reuse the clay   and start all over again. Despite many life 
sessions, it was only after Pogany left Paris   that Brancusi carved this marble bust of her
– from memory – then he cast four additional versions.   The finished work captures not an exact 
likeness but the intrinsic nature of Pogany.   It is a model in simplicity that reduces 
the basic features of a woman’s face   to what Brancusi called “The Essence of 
Things”.   Constantin Brancusi’s sculptures 
looked like nothing else – then or now. In the same way that Picasso reinvented
painting at the start of the 20th century, it’s safe to say the Brancusi “reinvented sculpture”. When we talk about modern art, we are really 
talking about Paris. It was a time when artists   came from all over the world just to be in 
that magical city – to be transformed.    It was an extraordinary time and place, that was 
worth walking all the way across Europe for.   Delacroix, Valadon and Brancusi helped make Paris,
“The City of Art”, a reputation it would retain for   over a century, seemingly invincible in 
its role as a visionary cultural leader.   But like all things, that too was to change.
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