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Work of Art


Artist: Jean-Léon Gérôme

Completion Date: c.1870

Style: Academicism

Genre: genre painting

Technique: oil

Material: canvas

Dimensions: 84 x 122 cm

Gallery: Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA

 

Painted in 1870, Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Snake Charmer represents Nineteenth-Century Academicism at its height. In his age, Gérôme occupied the highest position in the art world. Teaching at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he influenced many pupils and even became a fixture of the Imperial Court at Compiègne. Gérôme emerged as a major Academicist painter and his highly stylized, layered canvases reflect his training. Striving for synthesis between Neoclassisism and Romanticism, the Academicists dominated Parisian mid-Nineteenth Century art circles. After rigid, hierarchical training in specialized ateliers, they emerged into the limelight with exhibitions at the Paris Salon and Salon d’Automne. If successful, the artist would enjoy a prosperous, rewarding public career. Jean-Léon Gérôme, William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Thomas Couture all basked in their bourgeois audience’s acclaim during their respective careers. Their paintings typically depicted mythological themes with an emphasis on idealized figuration and romanticized settings. Gérôme’s The Snake Charmer depicts an Orientalist scene of imaginative wonder for its viewers.

When examining Academicist Orientalist paintings, one must remember that they are fantastic images of the Orient through Western eyes. Like Perrault’s Arabian Nights and Burton’s travelogues, they illustrate wild scenes of Ottoman seraglios, dueling Mamelukes and vertiginous dervishes. The Snake Charmer frames its setting with walls of blue mosaic inscribed with Arabic calligraphy. Seated on the floor are several tribesmen, who gaze enraptured at the spectacle before them. An aged  مُلاَعِبُ الأفَاعِي ( السّامّة ) (snake charmer) ensorcells a boa constrictor as it winds around a pubescent’s nubile frame. Gérôme focuses the viewer’s attention on the odalisque’s effulgent body through chiaroscuric detailing and luminous oils. Holding aloft the anvil-headed serpent, she artfully displays it before her spellbound assemblage. We are meant to engross ourselves in this Asiatic spectacle as it tantalizingly unfolds before us. Utterly alien to the Septième Arrondissement, it offers a momentary gustation of alluring Turkish delights.

 

 

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Newport and the Decline of American WASPdom

The November 28th issue of the American Conservative carried an ominous feature article discussing the myth of meritocratic admissions in elite American Universities. Written by publisher Ron Unz, it effectively […]

The November 28th issue of the American Conservative carried an ominous feature article discussing the myth of meritocratic admissions in elite American Universities. Written by publisher Ron Unz, it effectively demonstrated the anti-WASP and pro-Jewish admissions biases of the Ivy League. If true, this constitutes a sociological seismic shift and bodes ill for America’s future. The history of the North Americna WASP is a complicated narrative, which runs like a thread through the past several decades of this nation’s history. Following it leads to new discoveries and a greater awareness of where the decay first began within this country’s former ruling class.

As an observer, I can offer a unique perspective on this issue. I was born and raised in Newport, Rhode Island, which was the playground of America’s Gilded Age capitalists. As an energetic ten year old, I rode my Schwinn down streets crowded with reproduction Italianate and XVIIIe Siècle chateaus. Raised an Episcopalian, I received First Communion and Confirmation at Trinity Church, which was the ‘society’ parish and flaunted gaudy stained glass windows dedicated to various Vanderbilt family members. I became quickly familiar with sartorial choices such as pink trousers and madras jackets considered eccentric by most Americans, (although I was sensible enough not to wear them). Many of my childhood playmates boasted names readily found in the Social Register and gained access to trust funds when they reached twenty-one. Yet, I personally was not of them. I came from a solidly middle-class family and lived in a respectable neighborhood but one removed from Bellevue Avenue’s grandeur. To put it simply, I lived in Newport but was not of it. This allowed me a chance to observe American Old Money society for years and reflect on its attributes and limitations.

Firstly, I can agree with Mr. Knickerbocker’s assessment of American WASPdom and attest to its accuracy. The first aspect one notices in the utter lack of energy on the part of so many within this subculture. After spending an evening with them, one comes away thinking, “These are the descendants of the men who built America into a world power?!” They lack initiative and seemingly spend much of their waking lives in a state of languid ennui. Armed with a gin and tonic and the Wall Street Journal, many doze away their afternoons at exclusive clubs such as the Newport Reading Room and the Spouting Rock Beach Association. This is also a distinctly geriatric crowd and their progeny do not surpass them.

With the rise of a Judeo-liberal New Class and its prejudices, WASP children no longer attend Ivy League schools. For example, Unz’s article demonstrates that White Gentile enrollment dropped sixty-four percent at Brown University between 1980 and 2011. What was once a Baptist school for Rhode Island’s old families, (Williams, Goulds, Metcalfs, Chafees) is now a leftist camp. This reverse discrimination effectively means that true ability among young WASPS is often underdeveloped. In response to Ivy League admissions discrimination, WASP children often matriculate at overpriced liberal arts colleges known more for their affected Anglophilic traditions, squash teams and easy access to high-quality cocaine. Trinity College, Lake Forest, and Rollins all compete for their tuition dollars by promising a fun campus life and accommodating professors. WASPs have begun to believe the myth of Jewish superior intelligence and abandoned their own institutions. A culture which once valued education and striving ability now looks upon these qualities as optional accoutrements. This ennui and lethargy is a cancer within America’s former ruling class. Nowadays intellectualism is frowned upon within these circles—that’s for Jews and nerds. It’s certainly good to be intelligent but one must never be a bore. Tellingly, the private library in Newport (Redwood Library) boasts several prominent society doyennes on its board and a beautiful interior filled with busts of Classical poets and rare books. However, nobody really reads these holdings. You’re not supposed to; the books are there to look good.

As another example, I was recently at a fundraising party held at the former estate of Walter Hoving. Hoving served as CEO of Tiffany’s in the Fifties and his contentious son Thomas led the Metropolitan Museum of Art for ten difficult years. Decorated by Ogden Codman in Louis XVI style, it looked the perfect setting for an Edith Wharton novel. Glancing at the bookcases in the study, I noticed a complete first edition of Thomas Carlyle’s collected works on their shelves. Surreptitiously inspecting them, it was obvious they hadn’t been read in years, if at all. I think that is a revealing illustration of WASPdom’s decline. Appearances are kept up but there is little substance behind it. There are multiple hypotheses for this trend but I will attempt to explain my personal explanations for it.

Firstly, many WASPs actually do believe in the rhetoric of American meritocracy and regard their ancestors’ prejudices with embarrassment. Those from the Baby Boom generation will justify their listing in the Social Register as ‘something that keeps my mother happy’. Likewise, membership in exclusive clubs and fraternal associations such as the Sons of Cincinnatus are maintained as a family tradition but do not dominate their lives. They will exclude newcomers from these clubs unless they are judged to be acceptable. However, they will sell properties to them. This has led to Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive possessing a schizophrenic quality. Some houses are inhabited by very old families and European nobility while others are owned by New York City nouveau riche types. In my early twenties, I became friendly with a lovely girl who is the descendent of an admiral in the Sun King’s navy. Wearing blue jeans and fond of electronica tracks, she currently spends much of her college years dancing in Paris clubs. Her sense of family pride is as clear as her signet ring, yet she would never be condescending or rude to anyone of my background. She lives about half a mile away from a seaside mansion owned by the Israeli publisher of NEXT magazine, (a Chelsea gay lifestyle periodical). On this point, it must be noted that WASP’s are perhaps the most accepting of homosexuality out of all American ethnic groups.

In keeping with this trend, civility is highly prized and WASP matrons place a high value on politeness to their staff. If one used the ‘N-word’ around them, they would be genuinely offended. Anti-Semitism is allowed because Jews are seen as pushy arrivistes but only expressed among trusted friends and acquaintances. Often, once the speaker expresses the remark, it is qualified in order to lessen its import. At a dinner party I attended, the mildly inebriated host remarked that ‘Jews’ run the art world and produce decadent works. One of the women guests replied that if they do create dreadful paintings, it must be as a psychological response to the Holocaust. This kind of conversational thrust and parry demonstrates their impotence. They will catch an interesting topic but then release it in order to avoid controversy. Life is to be enjoyed and seriousness detracts from tennis and polo matches.

It is the lack of seriousness which also accounts for WASPdom’s degeneration. Their great-grandfathers were a hard-shelled, pig-eyed lot who took no prisoners and asked for no quarter. Bridge and Canasta were reserved for the rare moments they had as leisure time. The Newport summer season was largely for their wives and some arch-capitalists as Edward Julius Berwind only infrequently came up from Manhattan on August weekends. After all, he had Berwind Coal Company to run and miners’ unions to crush! These days, their descendants live lives of leisure because they simply can afford to. E. Digby Baltzell noted this trend as far back as 1964 in his work The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America. Originally coining the term ‘WASP’, he astutely observed that WASPdom was rapidly transforming from a class to a caste. Retreating from political power, they fell back into their decaying mansions, the Episcopal Church and quiet causes such as historic preservation and environmentalism. If engaging in politics, it is typically only as donors. They usually will not run for political office and rarely win on the occasions when they do. Cool, slim and well-dressed, they departed the field of battle because others were harder and hungrier for power.

Conclusively, my father offered the best commentary on WASPdom’s decline. Recently discussing this phenomenon with him, he offered the following maxim, “The first generation makes it, the second generation spends it, the third generation drinks it.” Demonstrating Spengler’s belief that civilizations are organic with life cycles, we are now in WASPdom’s Winter. Both Juvenal and Ammianus Marcellinus noted the same abrogation of authority by Roman patrician families in the Empire’s waning days. If the loss of the foundational ruling class’s power foreshadows social ruin, then America may very well be on the road to destruction.The next few decades will see the Republic change into Brazil-North and we will all have to live with the consequences of WASPdom’s decline.

Peter Sayles
Bangor Maine, 2012

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Work of Art

Title: The Sphinx Artist: Gustave Moreau Completion Date: 1864 Style: Symbolism Genre: mythological painting Technique: oil Material: canvas Dimensions: 105 x 206 cm Gallery: Metropolitan Museum of Art “The purpose […]

Title: The Sphinx

Artist: Gustave Moreau

Completion Date: 1864

Style: Symbolism

Genre: mythological painting

Technique: oil

Material: canvas

Dimensions: 105 x 206 cm

Gallery: Metropolitan Museum of Art

“The purpose of Symbolism is to objectify the subjective (the exteriorization of the Idea) instead of subjectifying the objective (nature seen through a temperament).”

Gustave Kahn (1886)

Currently exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Gustave Moreau’s The Sphinx is one of the Museum’s few Symbolist works. Once described to me as the ‘leering drunken uncle at a family reunion’ by a Manhattan contemporary art critic, Symbolism perplexed and unnerved the Met’s directors. Consequently, there are only a few examples tucked away in the European art wing. A few Redons, a decent Böcklin and this remarkable Moreau painting largely constitute the Met’s collection. It’s certainly a pity that the Met catered to its rather prudish Park Avenue benefactors and discreetly stepped over this vital art movement. However, at least one far-sighted curator was perceptive enough to include this magnificent work, which is one of Moreau’s finer pieces.

Depicting the Classical myth of Oedipus and the Sphinx, Moreau’s painting does not showcase the Sphinx’s legendary savagery. Instead, it only hints at the potential danger Oedipus faces by including a corpse’s hand and foot at the bottom of the picture. Instead, the viewer’s gaze is meant to focus on the ongoing symbiosis between the young man and the otherworldly creature. Moreau positioned Oedipus as the dominant, masculine figure staring down the Sphinx with fixed eyes and hard features. Conversely, she gazes back at him with an inscrutable expression. Is it respect, desire, hunger, expectation? We know the outcome of a  previous victim but will Oedipus necessarily follow him or will he correctly answer the Sphinx’s famous riddle? Locked in contest, we will soon learn the outcome and its ultimate victor.

Moreau’s best paintings were those in which he froze a specific, legendary moment by providing a memorable illustration. Like Salome Dancing before Herod and The Apparition, this work captivates our attention and inspires our imagination. Both figures are raptly engaged with each other with rigid forms and striated muscles. Will the Sphinx extend her claws into the youth’s flesh or will Oedipus throw the monster down forever into the gorge below? Moreau judiciously chose oil pigments as this work’s medium and also darkened the background with a leaden sky and storm clouds. The painting’s brightest areas are the exposed flesh of both combatants. Our eyes are drawn to their luminescence and their faces are coldly burned into our minds’ eyes. Whatever the outcome, we depart from our viewing with a renewed appreciation of myth’s effect on our mortal selves.

 

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Work of Art

Title: The Suitors

Artist: Gustave Moreau

Style: Symbolism

Genre: genre painting

Technique: oil

Material: canvas

Dimensions: 343 x 385 cm

      Painted in 1853, Moreau’s The Suitors presents the viewer with an arresting scene from Classical mythology. The returned Odysseus presents himself in his palace, which is occupied by Penelope’s suitors. Intriguingly, Moreau pivoted the point of action forty-five degrees in order to draw attention to them. Instead of the wandering king, the viewer’s eyes focus on  these sybaritic youths sprawled on divans. Besotted and ephebic, they appear as effete Uranians incapable of mounting any challenge to Ulysses. Soon to be slaughtered, they and not Penelope are this scene’s victims.

Sumptuously Caligulan, The Suitors creates a fantastical tableau décadence for Moreau’s Parisian audiences.  Chimerically depicting ancient Ithaca with gilded Corinthian pediments and lapus Lazuli columns, it abandons reality for wild reveries. Moreau implies that this degeneration will be brought to a bloody end. Just as Odysseus enters the hall, dawn breaks outside and grey-eyed Athena appears in her Olympian glory. With their arrivals, order will be restored, masculinity reaffirmed and honor seated in state. Yet for one delicious moment, Moreau invites us into a world à rebours of frockcoats, corsets and bourgeois morality. Like all great Symbolist paintings, myriad underlying meanings abound in The Suitors. Inspiring curiosity and concupiscence, compelling us to look further and tantalizing us with ripe potentialities, it lingers in our minds’ eyes long after we depart from the gallery.      

 

 

 

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Work of Art

Title: The Apparition

Artist: Gustave Moreau
Completion Date: 1876
Style: Symbolism
Genre: religious painting
Technique: watercolor
Dimensions: 72 x 105 cm
Gallery: Musée du Louvre

“Des Esseintes saw realized at last the Salome, weird and superhuman, he had dreamed of. No longer was she merely the dancing girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old ice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs the flesh and steels her muscles……a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning, like Helen of Troy of the Classic fables, all who come near her, all who see her, all who touch her.”

—-J.K. Huysmans, À rebours (1884)

Painted in 1876, Gustave Moreau’s The Apparition continued to explore the legend of Salome’s Dance. Moreau appropriately chose to utilize watercolors instead of oil pigments for this work. By using lighter tones and blurring delineations, he succeeded in capturing a beatific vision during Salome’s contortions. In a state of physical ecstasy, Salome gestures towards a beatific vision of the rewards she passionately desires. The geriatric, withered Herod looks on in the background while all attention is drawn to Jokannan’s head. Surrounded by seraphic light, his martyrdom reminds the viewer of redemptive power and the fulfillment of prophecy.

Deeply fascinated with theophanic revelation, Moreau illustrated a fantastical vision experienced during the height of Salome’s dance. For only a glittering moment, reality blurs and the saint’s ultimate fate appears before us. Scenes of Orientalist splendor fade away into the background while the viewer exalts God’s martyred prophet. In the heights of whirling ecstasy, Salome stretches out her hand towards her dance’s ultimate reward. Moreau’s technique also served to heighten the mood and illustrate this scene’s transience. The viewer remains awed by this phantasmagorical reverie but knows that it will forever be burned into his very consciousness.

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