Colonial History The Battle of Aboukir

History in Art and Film

Today’s painting depicts a moment in Colonial History The Battle of Aboukir which happened in Egypt during the war between Napoleonic France and Britain.  The history of what happened is explained below. This painting by Antoine-Jean Gros  Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799 is in the Palais de Versailles. 

Battle of Aboukir
Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799 Battle of Aboukir. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Fair Use applies, critical and educational use.
 

This is a good example of a ‘cinematic’ painting. Let’s consider the elements of what makes a painting ‘cinematic’

Let’s start with LIGHTING

Notice how the central part of the picture is much brighter and ‘lit’ even though this is supposed to be taking place outdoors in ‘natural’ light. The sense of brightness is created by the placement of white things in the centre of the picture, rather than any suggestion of a change in the natural lighting. This is a good example of the painter Antoine-Jean Gros’s fidelity to realism, within the context of a highly dramatic setting and action. Gros’s main body of work depicts Napoleon, and he did a great job of it; I will be posting more essays about his paintings.

Battle of Aboukir detail

COLOUR

Gros uses three main colours in this picture; yellow, red and white. Yellow (shades from yellow to brown) is the colour of nature – the dust and earth of Egypt. White appears in the clothing of some of the figures, but in the main, it is the colour of Napoleon’s horse that stands out. Red is very dominant; redness forms a circle around all the centre whiteness. it’s a striking effect.

Battle of Aboukir detail
RED!!

MOVEMENT

Paintings can’t move, but the ‘cinematic’ painting very often gives the illusion of movement, usually through the gestures of the figures or through the use of dynamic composition such as strong diagonals horizontals and verticals that indicate that something is moving through space. Even though we don’t see it moving, we can easily understand that it is moving. When we look at paintings such as this one we really get to see the dynamism of movement as a painted illusion. Here movement is indicated in the centre of the painting by the diagonal positioning of the standard, which slices through this section of the painting in a very strong diagonal line. It is also red, which almost gives it a sense of being like a sword slash, through the painting. The gestures of the figures, with outreaching arms and the twist of the bodies, also indicates movement. The whole painting feels as though it is vibrating with movement, writhing and alive.

Battle of Aboukir detail
 
MOVEMENT – THE DIAGONAL!
podcast by Gillian Mciver of The Battle of Aboukir

Cinema Battles

This kind of highly dramatic realism is very common in cinema. In art history, painting something so that it looks as though it is really there or really happening, is often referred to as ‘naturalism’. The struggle and the figures look natural even though as a depiction of the actual battle of Aboukir, I’d seriously question how ‘realistic’ it actually is. I mean, why would the man at the feet of Napoleon’s horse be stark naked? It’s really unlikely the Ottoman troops would go into battle stark naked or wearing clothes that fall off really easily. As a depiction of Colonial History, the Battle of Aboukir may not be realistic but it is spirited.

However, from a dramatic point of view, it allows the painter to demonstrate the vulnerability of the Ottoman soldiers (and the weakness of their position) overcome by the magnificent French troops under Napoleon. Additionally, it allows Gros to show off his ability to paint the human figure. Of course, if we were to try to re-create this battle for cinema we really couldn’t get away with showing this nudity, not for decency reasons but because it would actually be completely ridiculous. In fact, even in this picture, it’s completely ridiculous but somehow painting gets away with it.

The depiction of battles in cinema has a long history and has produced some extremely interesting scenes in films but these scenes are difficult to shoot. Partly because unlike in painting, is difficult to get single compositions within the frame so that one can focus on specific incidents. However, painting is a good guide for the filmmaker. Lighting, compositions use of colour and gesture in paintings can inspire the filmmaker because it demonstrates very clearly what is effective and engaging to the eye.

Some great battles in cinema history:

Omaha Beach Saving Private Ryan

The Street Protest Turned Battle, The Baader-Meinhof Complex

Braveheart – The Battle Of Falkirk

Apocalypse Now, Helicopter Beach Assault

Waterloo (1970), The Charge Of The Cuirassiers

Gladiator, Battle In Germania

Glory (1989), The Storming of Fort Wagner

Zulu (1964), The Battle of Rourke’s Drift

The History

What Actually Happened at Aboukir?

There were several battles called Battle of Aboukir (or Abu Qir) during the period of war between Napoleon’s France and Great Britain.

You may be familiar with the battle of Trafalgar which is commemorated in London’s Trafalgar Square, although Trafalgar itself is in Spain You may be familiar with the battle of Waterloo which is commemorated in Britain by a railway station and a bridge and is also the name of a town in Ontario, Canada – as well as a number of towns in the English speaking world. But the actual Waterloo is in Belgium.

The point is,  often we understand history through particular moments but we don’t understand how those moments arrived. How on earth did the French and the Turks and later the British end up having a fight at a place with an obviously non-European name like Abu Qir?

Where is Aboukir?

here it is!
Modern City of Alexandria to the left, the bay on the right

Abou Qir is in Egypt; you can go there*: it’s  a town on the Mediterranean coast near the ruins of ancient Canopus 23 kilometers northeast of Alexandria. It is located on a peninsula, with Abu Qir Bay to the east. The bay is where, on 1 August 1798, Horatio Nelson fought the Battle of the Nile, often referred to as the “Battle of Aboukir Bay”, an event also painted by Philip James De Loutherbourg (1800) among others.

The battle depicted by Gros took place a year later on land between between the French expeditionary army and the Turks under Mustapha Pasha (acting as an ally and agent of the British, though the Ottomans later switched sides). The French claimed it as a victory but it didn’t resolve anything.

Two years later they fought the Battle of Alexandria (aka Battle of Canope), on 21 March 1801 between the French army under General Menou and the British expeditionary army under Sir Ralph Abercromby, who died in the battle . after this the British marched on Alexandria and laid siege to the city.

*I’ve been very near to it but didnt actulay make it there. Next time!

Colonialism depicted

There are no paintings of the siege of Alexandria, or what happened in this essentially civilian city. Alexandria was one of the most important cities in the eastern Mediterranean. There’s no record left by Europeans of the suffering that happened to Egyptians as a result of being caught in the crossfire between two European empires and the dying, opportunistic Turkish empire.  

As you can see there’s something very uncomfortable and disconcerting about the idea of British and French and Turkish armies battling it out on Egyptian soil.

What is interesting about Gros’s painting is that, for all its attempt to depict the excitement of battle and the man on the White Horse as a symbol of European domination, when you know the actual history, the painting becomes a testament to the brutality of the colonial project, whether it’s English, French or Ottoman.  It’s a very honest picture of what was at the root of colonialism: violence. A testament to real Colonial History The Battle of Aboukir is an important painting and we shouldn’t forget about it.  

If you want to see more of Colonial History the Battle of Aboukir by Antoine-Jean Gros  [Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799] is in the Palais de Versailles.


Note: the colonisation of Egypt

Europeans were very aware of Egypt and regularly train traded with this outpost of the Ottoman Empire. Egypt had not been an independent country since the Roman conquest and by the 18th century was firmly established as a very lucrative, revenue-giving province of the Ottoman Empire. The French had considered trying to get hold of  Egypt for over 100 years but the expedition that sailed under Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 was connected with revolutionary France’s war against Britain. Napoleon hoped that, by occupying Egypt, he would damage British trade with the East Indies and strengthen his hand in bargaining. But he had other aims. He wanted to free Egypt from the ottomans and establish it as a progressive territory of Revolutionary France, Egypt was to be regenerated and would regain its ancient prosperity. Together with his military and naval forces, Napoleon sent a commission of scholars and scientists to investigate and report the past and present condition of the country.

 

Adieu Bonaparte

The story of Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt is told very sensitively and dramatically in the film Adieu Bonaparte by the Egyptian film maker Yousseff Chahine. The great actor Michel Piccoli plays one of the French scientist-engineers sent by Napoleon (who appears in the film played by Patrice Chereau) and his relationship with Ali, a young Egyptian man caught between traditional culture and his resentment at the reality of colonialism,  and his fascination with European science. The film is available in French and Arabic .


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A History of the World in 16 paintings, and the films they inspired

Paul Delaroche’s 19th century painting depicts a tragic, doomed English queen; Trevor Nunn’s 1985 film Lady Jane brings her to life.

Welcome to A History of the World in 16 Paintings. I am going to explain the whole history of the world (well, selected exciting bits of it, anyway) through sixteen extraordinary paintings and then tell you about the films inspired by both the historical story and the picture. Stay tuned for some real surprises.

I will be offering you a preview of an exciting new project that I’m working on, and you are the first to know about it. I’d love to hear what you think. Don’t forget to sign up to my newsletter to get exclusive content from the series.

Who knows, there might be more than 16 … stay tuned

The execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche National Gallery London Fair use applies educational / critique use only. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche National Gallery London Fair use applies educational / critique use only. Source: Wikimedia Commons  

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

Paul Delaroche painted this picture in 1833. As a French artist in turbulent political times, it was probably prudent to paint exciting scenes from a distant period of another country’s history. Here he depicts the execution of Jane Grey, a young aristocrat from the Tudor family who was briefly Queen of England.

Jane is sometimes known as the ‘nine days Queen’ because her reign was extraordinarily short. When young King Edward VI died, he apparently named Jane as his heir as the closest legitimate member of the Tudor family who could claim the throne. Edward did have two half-sisters by way of his father, Henry VIII. However, both Mary and Elizabeth were considered illegitimate: Henry had divorced Mary’s mother Catherine of Aragon and executed Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn.

Jane was brought to the throne partly through the machinations of her family, who sought to fulfil their own ambitions through her. However, Mary also had partisans, and after a very short time Mary prevailed. Jane was arrested and thrown in prison as Mary claimed the throne, becoming Mary I. Mary was the first full Queen regnant of England; that is, a Queen who rules entirely in her own right.

Apparently, Mary did not want to execute Jane but it was politically expedient to do so, and so therefore the young girl (only 16 years old!) was taken from her prison in the Tower onto Tower Green and publicly beheaded. If you visit the Tower today, the Beefeater guides will show you exactly where Jane was executed.

However,  Delaroche doesn’t show this public beheading. Instead he depicts the action in a dark chamber, so he’s able to manipulate the lighting to make it look even more harrowing. Delaroche wants you, the viewer, to sympathise with Jane: her fragility, purity and innocence emphasised  by the flimsy white dress she’s wearing and the pearly luminescence of her skin. At the same time, the picture plays into 19th-century ideas about fragile womanhood and also the titillation of the ‘woman in peril’ trope.

 

Lady Jane, the movie

In the 1980s, theatre director Trevor Nunn directed a film version of Jane Grey’s story, called Lady Jane with a young Helena Bonham Carter playing Jane (in a wonderful, feisty performance). The film recast Jane and her handsome husband Guilford Dudley as doomed young lovers fighting against a hostile and vaguely Thatcherite establishment. It’s very romantic and good fun; not necessarily accurate but it serves as a good introduction to the Jane and her life, and suggests what it might have been like to live in those fractious Tudor times.

 

Helena Bonham Carter as Jane Grey; screen shot

More information

 

the painting: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/paul-delaroche-the-execution-of-lady-jane-grey

the film: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Jane_(1986_film)

the history: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Lady-Jane-Grey/

Books: 

Nicola Tallis, Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey

Eric Ives, Lady Jane Grey – A Tudor Mystery

and a novel version: Alison Weir, Innocent Traitor

The Arts of Cinema Part II: Admiral and the Golden age of Dutch Painting

Dutch art of the 17th century has a lot to teach the film maker. During this period, Dutch painters such as Rembrandt, Jan Vermeer, Gerrit van Honthorst, Pieter de Hooch and others developed a kind of painting that combined intense realism with drama and emotion. They did this largely through a deep understanding of how lighting works within the image.

They learned from the Caravaggists, the followers of Caravaggio (the Italian painter who I’ll write about in a later post ) who was one of the first to really demonstrate how careful manipulation of light is one of the chief tools of the visual storyteller.

The film Admiral follows the visual style of the Dutch painters and the Caravaggists in using light as a way to model the physical characteristics of the films characters, to create painterly shots, and  – as a self-reflexive motif that runs throughout the film – to include paintings within the films mise en scéne* to remind the viewer that the story of the film is deeply connected to the historical world which we chiefly know through the paintings . Here are some examples of how that works in the film:

Vermeer’s Milk Maid

shot from Admiral
Jan Vermeer The Milk Maid, c.1660

Early on in the film we catch a very, very brief glimpse of the admiral’s maidservant working alone in the kitchen. This shot, which only lasts a couple of seconds, is a recreation of the very famous Vermeer painting The Milkmaid. The recreation of this painting in the film indicates not only a connexion with Vermeer and the Dutch Golden Age’s great achievements in art, but alludes to Vermeer’s representation of domesticity and the beauty of the everyday – which in the context of the film is the one thing that the Admiral is never able to truly experience, because he sacrifices his family life in order to save the nation.   

Later (and I don’t want to give away too much of the plot), there is a terrible scene where one of the main characters in the film is killed in a particularly vile way by a baying mob in the streets of Amsterdam The film shows the painting being done from life; as the characters pass through the street, we catch a glimpse of an unseen painter painting the picture. We have no idea whether or not the painting was done in situ (probably it wasn’t).

Jan de Baen painting the painitng below, shot from Admiral
Jan de Baen

Realistic Sea Battles

In my previous blog post, I showed you the recreation of the sea battles in the film, and how they are based on the marine pictures by Dutch artists. However, what is particularly interesting is that the nature of movie-making is that you can actually go onto the ships and participate in the battles, rather than – as the painters had to – portray them at a distance. Roel Reiné’s camera brings us right onto the deck in the middle of the fighting.

 

still from Admiral

At one point we are taken below deck and the lighting of this particular shot is strongly reminiscent of a painting by the Caravaggist Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera (see below, Ribera’s St Jerome, a good example of the lighting effect).

It is a technique known as tenebrism which is very extreme contrasts of dark and light. This is an important shot because it really brings home to the viewer the human experience of the battle, the terror that the participants must have felt, yet at the same time, the framing of the picture gives us a sense of something spiritual – perhaps the worthiness of the sacrifice.

 

 


* mise en scéne is a term that refers to everything that appears in the frame of a shot: what is before the camera and its arrangement: composition, the set/location  and all its props, the actors and where they are placed, the costumes, and the lighting. It can also include the use of colour and tonality. The term originated in the theatre and means ‘placing on the stage’. In film, of course, there isn’t a stage; the camera substitutes for the stage. The camera is much more mobile and so the mise en scéne of a film is constantly changing


to learn more about Art History and film, read my book ART HISTORY FOR FILMMAKERS

Bloomsbury Press direct

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and you can order it from your local bookstore

 

I. The Arts of Cinema: Admiral

The first of my series of Film Stills that Look Like Paintings.  I’ll be talking about what ‘painterly’ means in films later this week. This is a shot from Admiral, directed by Roel Reiné, 2015. It is a historical drama about the Anglo-Dutch wars in the late 1600s. It is a very exciting, beautifully made film that has just the right mix of real history and dramatization.

film still from Admiral, 2015

Interestingly, even at the time – during the Anglo Dutch wars – English collectors were buying Duch paintings of the battles! Even more interesitngly, the Admiral of the film’s title, Michiel de Ruyter – one of the greatest Dutch marine comanders – has a number of splendid portraits in the London museum. 

Portraits and people

Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter (1607–1676) RMG Repro ID: bhc2997
Frank Lammers as de Ruyter, screen shot

Sea battles in film and art

Battle of Terheide, Jan Abrahamsz. Beerstraten, 1653 – 1666 Rij
screen shot from the film

According to Reiné, preparations for the film were done in the Rijksmuseum, to get the sets and cinematography just right. The exciting depictions of 17thC sea battles by Backhuysen, Beerstraten, Vroom and others are captured in a convincing mise en scéne. Many paintings by these artists are also in the Royal Martime Museum in Greenwich, London. 

I should add that Reiné was also Cinematographer on the film which is fairly unusual. He’s great at painterly historical action: he has also done episodes of Black Sails, and recently Knightfall & Washington.

Ludolf Bakhuizen: attack on the Medway: The Royal Charles carried into Dutch Waters, 12 June 1667. Royal Maritime Museum Greenwich BHC0292

More on Admiral and the Golden age of Dutch Painting

in Part 2 I’ll explain how Roel Reiné used paintings in his film design

18th century VFX!

“The Defeat of the Spanish Armada” by Philip James (Jacques-Phillipe) De Loutherbourg.

the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Jacques-Phillipe Loutherbourg 1790
the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Jacques-Phillipe Loutherbourg 1790

Loutherbourg is a fascinating artist. Born in France, he became a successful painter very young, but moved quite suddenly to London where he reinvented himself as a theatre scenographer. He pretty much invented what we would today call special effects (vfx). He even invented a kind of proto-cinema presentation system. He continued to paint, and this depiction of a slice of English history is a good example of his highly cinematic style: lurid colours, dramatic composition, intense sublime.
Loutherbourg was a keen alchemist and follower of occult practices. For a couple of years he even quit art and became a faith healer. That didn’t really work out.
Amazing, underrated and visually stunning, Loutherbourg’s paintings all deserve another look.

This picture is the best visual representation of the defeat of the Armada we have; the various films that have been made of the event aren’t nearly as evocative. Kapur’s Elizabeth the Golden Age is pretty bad actually in terms of the battle scenes. 

It would take until 1979 that a war film would have the courage to create visuals like this painting does – and that film is Apocalypse Now shot by the brilliant Vittorio Storaro.

In terms of fantastic sea battles, the most Loutherbourgian one I can think of is Pacific Rim.

 

 


#arthistory #film #cinema #vfx #arthistoryfilm #painting #art

Some Roman Ultra-Violence

Check out this astonishingly violent, horrid painting! It is by 19thC French painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme who made many historical and Orientalist paintings. Many of his works are tinged with a strange sickly eroticism but this one is positively sick-making, in a fun Roger Corman / Tarantino kind of way. (the picture is in a private collection and is rarely seen, maybe never; would love to know who’d put this on his wall )

ean-Léon Gérôme [CLICK IMAGE TO EXPAND] Gathering Up the Lions in the Circus Source: https://www.pubhist.com/w38153
Jean-Léon Gérôme [CLICK IMAGE TO EXPAND]
Gathering Up the Lions in the Circus Source: https://www.pubhist.com/w38153
It depicts the end of a “typical” session of the Roman Games when the evil emperors would put a bunch of Christians in the ring with the lions, and watch the lions tear the Christians apart.  The scene was probably influenced by the stirring descriptions of the carnage in the novel Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz. In the 1951 film of Quo Vadis meat was stuffed in “dummies” dressed like Christians and the lions – who had probably (and unethically) been starved before hand – tore them to pieces.  Today, hopefully, we would not treat animals like that; thank god for CGI.

human ‘torches’ – people burned alive while hung from posts.

horrible chunks of flesh lying on the ground and a man whipping a lion. what’s not to dislike here?

now the gendered violence. an inexplicably naked, almost un-chewed woman lying provocatively in the gore. Fully disgusting.

These horrors were described in detail by the Roman historian Tactius. Remember, the term ‘historian’ did not mean then what it means today. Today you have to have a history degree to call yourself that. Ideally more than one degree. Tacit did not and basically his history of Rome under Nero – including the ultraviolence rendered here visually by Gérôme – was written at the behest of Nero’s enemies, meaning it is a hatchet job. Modern historians do not think that things were quite like Tacitus describes them, though his account of the factional fighting among the Roman elite was probably pretty accurate. 

Interestingly, Quo Vadis author Sienkiewicz was himself probably inspired by the Polish academic history painter Henryk Siemiradzki; Siemiradzki’s Nero’s Torches, 1877 shows the decadent Emperor enjoying a lavish party while to the right of the painting a row of human torches is in the process of being lit. Imagine the smell!!!

Henryk Siemiradzki Nero’s Torches [CLICK IMAGE TO EXPAND]
source: wikimedia.org
It’s probably redundant to say this, but there is actually NO evidence that Christians were ever fed to lions as public entertainment. Persecuted, they were; executed, sometimes. But gobbled up in the arena, probably not.

Text ©Gillian McIver all right reserved. Images sourced online as indicated, fair use applies.

BROOKLYN BRIDGE: light, color, composition

JOSEPH STELLA BROOKLYN BRIDGE WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART; photo: self

I have been in NEW YORK solely for the purpose of LOOKING AT ART. What was the most cinematic painting I saw? Oooooh, so many! American art was a revelation! One of my favourites is BROOKLYN BRIDGE by Joseph Stella, at the Whitney Museum. Notice how Stella brings together elements of abstraction, expressionism and realism! Walking around the bridge on both sides f the river, and seeing it in different lights, I understood exactly what Stella was doing. Making me think, how would I light and compose the bridge if it was a film shot? When I got home, and I crossed Hammersmith Bridge in London I started to think about that. …

 

Text ©Gillian McIver all right reserved. Images  as indicated, fair use applies.

Welcome!

Giorgione - Three_Philosophers [Google_Art_Project]
Giorgione – Three_Philosophers [Google_Art_Project]
Since cinema’s earliest days, literary adaptation has provided the movies with stories; and so we use literary terms like metaphor, metonymy and synedoche to describe visual things. But there is another way of looking at film, and that is through its relationship with the visual arts – mainly painting, the oldest of the art forms. Art History for Filmmakers is an inspiring guide to how images from art can be used by filmmakers to establish period detail, and to teach composition, color theory and lighting.

The book Art History for Filmmakers – published by Bloomsbury Press and available for all good book dealers – looks at the key moments in the development of the Western painting, and how these became part of the Western visual culture from which cinema emerges.

As the author of this book I’m looking forward to readers’ comments and questions. I will also post my own short film and exhibition reviews and information.