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Politically, culturally and historically, the years between 1770 and 1830 were six of the most turbulent decades in the history of the western world.

Two great revolutions took place, the American and the French. The second ushered in unparalleled social upheaval and decades of European warfare. Romanticism took hold, with a new-found emphasis upon the importance of the feeling individual. And, in painting, there were similar important shifts in taste.

History painting, pre-eminent for so long, began to be supplanted by a growing appetite for portraiture.

“Public Portraits, Private Portraits”, the almost-great new show at Paris’s Grand Palais, examines about 130 examples of sculpted and painted portraits, and encourages us to examine exactly what changed – and why.

The staging is suitably lavish, if not histrionic, often thanks to the scale and the quality of the works. We pass from room to room as if involved in some kind of royal progress. The show is an evolving argument, which proceeds almost unfalteringly until we climb the great and pompous horseshoe-shaped staircase to the second floor. Alas, at this point, it begins to lose its way somewhat. For the most part, the greatest works are now behind us (though there are still some truly great works to be seen in the last room of the show), and it begins to fall prey to repetition, padding and some degree of intellectual confusion.

But let us return to the beginning, and to the splendours of David, Goya and others. The show begins with an examination of portraits of holders of power – emperors, kings, popes. And what portraits these are.

Here we can see the court painter Goya’s pitiless 1815 portrayal of Ferdinand VII of Spain from the Prado. The painting is as brilliant as it is remorseless. Ferdinand looks stunted, posed, ridiculous. His fisty hands look more befitting a swingable club than the royal emblem he is grasping. His chin looks prognathous, as if it is being presented to us on a platter.

This painting begins to tells us, in little, the story of the entire show. Goya is no longer painting a monarch of the kind that the world would have been accustomed to seeing from royal portraiture of the recent past.

Look, for example, at the splendidly regal portrait of Louis XVI by Antoine-François Callet, also in this room, executed on the eve of the French Revolution. Although it was painted just 26 years before the portrait by Goya, see how it flatters the sitter by enhancing him physically, and thereby estranges the onlooker by its sheer mist of semi-divine regality. This is man as much-more-than-man surrounded by the trappings of near-divinity.

No, Goya has given us a man. And Jacques-Louis David does exactly the same thing in his 1812 portrait of Napoleon. Here, once again, we see not the semi-divine emblem, but the breathing human animal, a creature of immense forcefulness and will power. All energy here seems to be concentrated in the head and the face.

The body is that of a runt. An inflated puppet called George III is also worth looking at in this room, thoroughly trapped by the trappings of office, lace cuffs giving off a false shimmer of sovereignty – the polar opposite, in fact, of the George Washington we see nearby, dressed in all the modest and sombre dignity of a plain man who has been blown to the very front of the stage by the winds of destiny.

Leave this brilliant room, and the argument of the show now begins to be refined. We look at many great portraits of women, artists, families.

Each one demonstrates that painters during these decades were in the business, little by little, of breaking down old hierarchies, old attitudes; of introducing new kinds of informality – of dress, of behaviour, of self-scrutiny. Men begin to burst out from behind the veil of rigid social types. Women are allowed to be brazenly beautiful – look for example, at Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of the actress Mrs Abington.

And so we pass up those stairs, and at the top, as if apotheosised, we confront a grand, full-length sculpted portrait of Voltaire, the great philosopher by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (Pigalle’s own portrait bust, sculpted by himself, stands at the bottom of the stairs – how exhausted he looks). Voltaire’s head is immense, his body that of a wasted anchorite. So much for the intellectual life.

Then the exhibition loses pace. One immense room is devoted entirely to neo-
classical portrait busts in order to demonstrate (somewhat perplexingly, given the argument of the show) how the passion for portrait busts of this kind endured throughout these years of change and ferment.

Many are so uninteresting in comparison with the great paintings downstairs that the heart begins to sink. We notice that there are no fewer than three portrait busts of the politician Charles James Fox by Nollekens, all variants upon each other. The three busts are moderately interesting – let us not exaggerate – to look at, but the overall impression is that the exhibition is marking time.

In fact, many of these neo-classical busts lack individual flavour – which may, in fact, have pleased the sitters. After all, would it not have been desirable to be reminded that they were reminiscent of the heroes and heroines of antiquity? Whether they greatly interest us – and whether they should command so much space in this show – is another matter altogether.

A little later on, we reach a room devoted to the subjects of style, elegance and grace – as if these particular attributes, all of a sudden, had to be examined in the abstract.

As if everything that had gone before had not revealed style, elegance and grace in abundance. It is a perplexing digression.

Thankfully, the last room of all contains a portrait by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, dated 1832, of Louis-François Bertin, sometime forceful director of the weekly newspaper Journal des Débats. This is a tremendous work. The man has a tree-like stolidity and is so wilful, so fully grounded and apparently so ready to square up to us that we almost flinch.

There are other fine works here, from Delacroix and David among others. It is a welcome return to the chronological track and a fittingly resounding end for what is overall a fascinating and significant show.

‘Portraits publics, portraits privés: 1770-1830’ is at the Grand Palais, Paris, until January 8.
Tel +33 1 44 13 17 17

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