- Georges Clairin
naiades et centaures dans les vagues
- signed G. Clairin lower left
- oil on canvas
- 101.5 by 166.5cm., 40 by 65½in.
Depicting mermaids and centaurs frolicking in the waves, the present work is sensual, joyful and dynamic.
Within French academic painting there was a strict hierarchy with regard to subject matter. History and mythological painting were advocated as supreme to all other genres. In Western mythological painting of the seventeenth, eighteenth and in particular of the nineteenth century, an element of voyeurism entered the use of myth, as the nude in high art was something that slipped through the clutches of middle-class morality and deflected censorship. Female mythological water creatures, such as mermaids, sirens, nereids, naiads and goddesses such as Aphrodite and Venus lent themselves to be depicted in the nude, and hence gained increasing popularity as a subject matter. It was not only the importance of the subject in terms of the Salon's hierarchy of art, but also the commercial appeal of these mythological water paintings that propelled Salon artists to produce them. As Bouguereau once stated : `I soon found out that the horrible, the frenzied, the heroic does not pay; and as the public of today prefers Venuses and Cupid and as I paint to please them, to Venus and her Cupid I chiefly devote myself.'
Clairin, like his Swiss contemporary Arnold Böcklin, greatly admired classical themes in art. One of the most important elements of Böcklin's work is the constant presence of water in his oeuvre. For him, water was a symbol of joyful oblivion rather than destruction, a mirror on the surface and a kingdom of death in its depths, a world at once accessible and fantastic. In Böcklin's paintings mythological figures and sea creatures embody the vitality of nature. Similarly, Clairins' mythological water nudes express a longing for an arcadian, paradisiac world, liberated from sexual constraints and anxieties, full of cheerful vitality. Works such as Naiades et Centaures dans les Vagues and Naiads at Play create a utopia of a 'better world' in which man is at one with nature, and were essentially pictorial expressions of optimism and the lust for life. The present work in particular depicts the carefree spirits of the ocean waters in an energetic and joyful way. As fantasy beings, half human, half animal, these mythological characters carry a duality within them, which is symptomatic for living in harmony with nature – a state which Clairin craved, and like so many Renaissance painters before him, idealised.