Sunday, September 26, 2010

Goethe and Wilhelm Tell (Again)

Now that I am no longer chair of the Columbia University Seminar on 18th-Century European Culture, I can really enjoy the meetings. I particularly like the cocktails portion, in the lounge of Faculty House, in the hour before the talk, when I can sit with my scotch and soda without worrying about whether there will be enough chairs for the attendees and so on. Last Thursday was the opening meeting of this academic year, and the speaker was Elizabeth ("Cassie") Mansfield, a professor of art history at New York University. She spoke on a painting by François-André Vincent, who in his time was admired for his historical re-creations. (As in the lovely painting below, from the National Gallery of Australia, of the Roman general Belisarus.) The painting in question was Democritus among the Abderites. Yes, Abderites! In case you didn't know, the Abderites were a pre-Socratic school of philosophy, and Democritus was one of its proponents. Somewhere back in graduate school I actually dipped into Wieland's novel History of the Abderites.

Professor Mansfield was making the point that Vincent, a "liberal" artist, though in favor of the French Revolution, was directing some veiled satire on the growing power of the Paris mob. Professor Mansfield made the interesting point that Vincent was more admired at this time than Jacques-Louis David, who has come to represent the Revolution in art. David was an enthusiast, after all, and perhaps, as Cassie indicated, Vincent's more critical reaction to the Revolution kept him from being straightforward.

A more compelling case for Vincent's attitude toward the Revolution was another example Professor Mansfield showed us, namely, the1795 painting at the top of this post, from the Museé des Augustins in Toulouse. Here, Vincent has portrayed Wilhelm Tell, in the famous scene in which, during a storm on Lake Lucern, he escapes from Gessler and his soldiers. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

Two years later, in 1797, Goethe made his final visit to Switzerland, when he was still thinking about writing his own Tell epic. (See my earlier posts on this subject, here and here.) In preparation for my paper on Bodmer at the German Studies Association next month, I have been reading about Henry Fuseli who was one of Bodmer's disciples in the 1750s. Goethe admired Fuseli's work, and after his visit to Switzerland with Carl August in 1779, he had written to their mutual friend Lavater, asking if Fuseli might help him prepare a "memorial" of this journey as a present for the duke. According to Goethe biographer Nicholas Boyle, Fuseli declined to cooperate. In 1797, Goethe saw Fuseli's painting of the Rütli oath, in which one sees similarities to David's later painting of the oath of the Horatii. What amazing artistic inter-connections.

Picture credit: historywiz

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