Jean-Paul Laurens - The Last Moments of Maximilian (1882)
George W. Joy - General Gordon's Last Stand (1893)
My love for historical painting strikes again with today's December Double! Twice in one week--isn't that a treat! I would like to present 'The Last Moments of Maximilian' by French painter Jean-Paul Laurens and 'General Gordon's Last Stand' be Irish artist George W. Joy.
The subject in oir first painting is Maximillian I, monarch of the Second Mexican Empire, who was offered his throne by Napoleon III of France, and later formally crowned himself Emperor of Mexico in 1864. Unfortunately for Maximilian, the French eventually withdrew their support of this endeavor, and in 1867 opposing forces led by Mexican President Benito Juárez captured and executed the him. Though Laurens's painting shows pity for the former Emperor, it doesn't cast him in a heroic or courageous light, as one might expect in such a narrative. Rather he's depicted with his hand covering his face, unable to face his executors, perhaps indicating that he was unworthy of the throne for which he crowned himself. Whatever the case, this painting shows a man realizing that his life is soon about the end. This work has a very human quality, devoid of Romanticism and owing much to Realism.
The subject for our second painting is Charles George Gordon, a celebrated British Army Officer who was killed in 1885 during the Siege of Khartoum by opposing Sudanese forces. In comparison to the Maximilian painting, Joy depicts Gordon as undaunted by the army of men approaching up the stairway, closing in on him with weaponry in hand and likely to seize him within the next few moments. Gordon, standing at the top of the stair as a figure of dignity and grace, awaits their arrival without showing any fear, which, of course, would only further satisfy the enemy.
Visually, 'Gordon' a remarkable painting, and the composition is fantastic, travelling back and forth between scenes of calm and action, but it lacks that human quality which appealed to me in Laurens's 'Maximilian'. I understand that Joy's aim was to celebrate Gordon while Laurens wanted to depict Maximilian in a more critical eye, but as stand alone works I find 'Maximilian' a more rewarding experience. I'm also partial of Laurens's use of lighting, creating a stark interior scene which heightens the emotional impact of the subject. As I me filmed before, Joy's 'Gordon' is a handsome work, but it fails to resonate with me on a human level; his portrayal of the general shows no cracks of weakness for the viewer to engage directly. Perhaps that wasn't Joy's intent.