Thursday, 15 October 2009

American Venus: Ariadne asleep on the Island of Naxos by John Vanderlyn

Agent Triple P saw this striking and historically significant painting in Philadelphia's splendid Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which was just up the road from his hotel.

Self portrait by John Vanderlyn
John Vanderlyn (1775-1852), as his name suggests, was the grandson of a Dutch emigree to New York, Pieter (1687–1778), also a painter and the son of a glazier-painter. He took classes at New York's Columbian Academy before being offered a space in the studio of eminent portraitist Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) in 1794. Stuart encouraged him to study abroad but, unlike previous American painters who had gone to London to study, Vanderlyn became the first American painter to travel to Paris. He studied at the Académie de Peinture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts where he was a pupil of neoclassical painter Francois-André Vincent (1746-1816). In 1800 he became the first American artist to exhibit at the Paris Salon.

Over the next few years he returned to New York, went back to Paris and then to Rome where he studied old masters and developed his portraiture and neo-classical style.

This painting, Ariadne asleep on the Island of Naxos (1809-1814), was the culmination of a series of nudes that he had attempted based on other artists works. Ariadne, however was an original composition and is really one of the very first examples of a major nude painting by an American artist. The pose echoes those of the Renaissance Venuses of Titian and Giorgione whilst exhibiting a good grounding in the French academic tradition. Needless to say, when it was first displayed in America in 1815, its sensual approach caused controversy and as late as the 1890s, when it was firmly esconced in the Pennsylvania Academy's collection, there were protests against its "flagrant indelicacy" and calls for it to be removed from display.

The painting as displayed today in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia

Vanderlyn carried on being a successful painter, although his business ventures, which largely centred on taking large 360 degree panoramas on tour were not so successful, mainly because he worked so slowly; Ariadne took him five years to complete.
The high point of his later career was when he was asked by Congress to contribute a mural to the Capitol Rotunda in Washington DC. His historical epic Landing of Columbus at the Island of Guanahani, West Indies, 12 October 1492 (1836–47) making a strong, if nowadays politically incorrect, statement about Europe bringing civilisation to Native Americans. It is rumoured, however, that he hired a French artist to do much of the work on this painting.

Unlike Modigliani, in our previous post, he really only completed this one major nude. Sadly, like Modigliani, he died in poverty in 1852.

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