Reviving Antiquity: Artists and Their Study of Ancient Rome is the Saint Louis Art Museum’s current exhibition, on view through Sept. 27. The exhibit highlights six recent museum acquisitions, and focuses on the influence of Roman art on 18th- and 19th-century painters and sculptors.
At the center of it all is Francois-André Vincent’s Arria and Poetus, an extraordinary example of French Neoclassicism and the most important master painting the museum has ever purchased, according to Judith Mann, curator of European art to 1800. “It was a painting we knew existed but had been in private collections all these years,” she explains. “After a 20-year search, the Museum acquired it last December from a dealer in New York who bought it in France.”
The painting, completed in 1784, was exhibited in the Salon in Paris in 1785. “The Salon was an exhibition space where artists submitted their works to be seen,” Mann says, noting that 1785 was a momentous year in the history of the Salon. “The most important painting of the second half of the 18th century was displayed at the Salon that year: Jacques-Louis David’s The Oath of the Horatii, considered the textbook example of Neoclassicism,” she says. “At the same time, on the same wall, Arria and Poetus was also displayed.”
It depicts the story of Arria, who visits her husband, Poetus, in prison. Their tale comes from the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote a number of histories featuring admirable women, Mann explains. “All of the women in Tacitus’ accounts committed suicide in support of their husbands. In Roman society, honor was the most important thing.”
According to Tacitus, Poetus participated in an unsuccessful uprising against the governor, was sent into exile and then brought back to Rome to be imprisoned. The scene in the painting portrays Arria going to her husband in prison and imploring him to take his own life with a dagger. “She’s pointing to her head, he’s touching his heart. She’s rational, he’s emotive,” says Mann. As the story goes, Arria is gesturing to her head, emphasizing that her husband knows what must be done. But Poetus is unwilling. “That’s when Arria grabs the dagger and stabs herself, encouraging her husband to follow her,” Mann says. “Arria is famous for saying, Poetus, it does not hurt.”
In contrast to David’s The Oath, Arria and Poetus presents women as the nobler sex, Mann says. “Arria’s posture is more graceful than her husband’s, and her drapery folds are smoother.” And while The Oath and other previous works focused on masculine honor, Mann says Arria portrays the reverse. “The Oath is all about men agreeing to go to battle, while the women were cast to the side, almost as non-important elements. Arria is definitely about the woman. It shows another side of Neoclassicism.”
During the time when Arria and Poetus and The Oath of the Horatii were unveiled at the Salon of 1785, Neoclassicism as a style was flourishing, says Mann. “It was a time when philosophers and theorists looked to the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome as models. The artists took their cue from these same principles and dramatized them in their works.” Mann adds that Neoclassic works usually have stark, stage-like settings, and often include some form of noble gesture. “It was a reaction against an earlier, 18th century style called Rococo, which focused on softer, more feminine subjects,” she says. “Neoclassicism involved ideas leading up to the French Revolution, and also paved the way for Impressionism and other movements.”
Alongside Arria and Poetus, five other recent acquisitions are on view, including Zenobia in Chains, an 1859 marble sculpture by Harriet Hosmer. Mann says Hosmer, who emerged as one of the leading sculptors of the 19th century, has a St. Louis connection. “She was from Massachusetts, but came to St. Louis to study anatomy. After her training here, she left for Rome and sculpted there.”
Hosmer’s work portrays Zenobia, an ancient Middle Eastern queen who was taken prisoner by the Romans. “Zenobia, according to the story, had won a few battles over Roman generals, so capturing her was quite the prize. And when she was captured, Zenobia insisted on having chains of gold,” Mann says. “The Emperor was so impressed with her courage and ability that she was allowed to live in Rome for the next 30 years and eventually became an important personage in Roman history.”
In addition to Reviving Antiquity: Artists and Their Study of Ancient Rome, the museum is moving forward with the cleaning of an important group of paintings celebrating the antique sites of Italy. Titled Reviving Antiquity: Restoring Hubert Robert’s Views of Ancient Ruins, the interactive project takes place June 10 through Oct. 18, and will feature conservator Mark Bockrath of Philadelphia. Mann says Bockrath will clean and restore three large Robert landscapes that have been in storage, awaiting conservation. “The current exhibition provided the perfect opportunity to showcase the conservation of the Robert paintings,” she notes. “Visitors can observe the conservation and participate in scheduled Q&A sessions with Mark.” The three paintings are part of four Robert landscapes commissioned during the 1780s. One of the works was cleaned and treated by the Museum’s painting conservator, Paul Haner, in 1996.
Reviving Antiquity: Artists and Their Study of Ancient Rome is currently on view in Gallery 204 through Sept. 27. Beginning Wednesday, the painting conservation lab, Reviving Antiquity: Restoring Hubert Robert’s Views of Ancient Ruins, will be on view in Gallery 205. Admission to these exhibits is free to all.