Ekphrastic Poetry with Ellen: An Examination of Idealism and Symbolism in 19th Century French Academic Art

Edouard Bisson, Sea Nymphs 1901.


Ekphrastic Poetry with Ellen: An Examination of Idealism and Symbolism in 19th Century French Academic Art

     My project will focus on the study of ekphrastic poetry. Alongside a 3-4 page reflective paper, I will write a series of ekphrastic poems (with little captions of explications) about French Academic Art in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Ekphrasis is the Greek word for “description.” Ekphrastic poetry is meant to be a “vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art…the poet may amplify and expand its meaning” (Ekphrasis). I would like to write ekphrastic poetry based on the art of Academic Artists such as William Adolphe Bouguereau, Alexandre Cabanel, and Jules Joseph Lefebvre as they often use religion and mythology as sources of inspiration in their paintings. For example, Bouguereau has a painting called “L’Aurore” which depicts Aurora, the Greek goddess of dawn. Other artists I’m considering include: Edouard Bisson, Leon Belly, Pierre Auguste, and Guillaume Seignac although these are subject to change because I keep finding more and more paintings that I love!

I also feel, due to my research, that the aesthetics, ideology, and interests of Academic Art fits into my style of poetry best. Goldstein describes Academic Artists as idealists who see imperfections in nature but choose to airbrush and thereby “perfect” it through depictions of beauty. I like to view this as a pursuit of hope. He also states Academic Artists depict this idealism through the reference of history, poetry, and religion as they relate to human emotion and psychology. I believe this topic is perfect for me as I incorporate a lot of either symbols or ideologies presented in both Greek mythology and Catholicism in my poetry, always in search of something positive, hopeful, or better.

Some artists criticize academic art for its focus on idealism and believe the art ignores current social concerns. Others feel the idealist, air-brushed approach lacks artistry and does not take movement into account– another way to ignore the real world (Academic Art). I both agree and disagree with these statements. I obviously was not present in France during this time period and do not understand the nuances of navigating society in that time and place. However, as an artist, I feel like art based in religion or mythology, while not directly depicting to the real world, is a reflection of it and allows people to reflect in a broader sense of the real world. I feel like by reflecting on mythology and religion through a scope of idealized beauty one can more easily reach towards hope– hope delights through the eyes of beauty.

Another fun thing academic art does is it situates itself between Neoclassicism and Romanticism. This search for balance began in the 17th century when Peter Paul Rubens and his followers (“rubenistes”) argue that color should “dominate” art while Nicolas Poussin and his followers (“poussinistes”) argue that line should “dominate art.” In the 19th century Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, a Neoclassical painter, and Eugène Delacroix, a Romantic painter, picked the debate up again. However, academic artists studying at the Académie des beaux-arts believed a synthesis of color and line could be found (Academic Art). I would like to take this idea of balance and harmony and apply it to my poetry. During this time period I feel like French Symbolists are sort of what was considered the poetry related academic art, however, I feel that French Symbolists poets still come across as leaning more romantic rather than finding the harmony displayed academic art. I would like to further modernize and make poetry that represents academic art by creating a balance of romantic, idealized poetry that explores human emotion, psychology, and morality through the use of literary/historical allusions and imagery.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Impressionist artists make it clear that they believe Academic Art is reserved for the bourgeoisie and lacks creativity (Academic Art). While Impressionist artists are correct about the lack of accessibility to the art academies, I don’t feel it lacked creativity. However, I do feel it’s important to note that this was the “fin-de-siecle” in France and many political debates were taking place that leaked into the art world. France was still being effected by the French Revolution and Napoleonic rule and trying to re-establish themselves as a civilization. This was also during the Age of Enlightenment. I feel like our current political realities reflect off this time period’s political realities. We are in a modern Renaissance with the surge of the internet and the use of platforms such as TikTok to create niche communities in addition to our polarized political climate. I wonder if that’s why so many people are currently drawn to Renaissance, Rococo, Baroque, and Academic Art currently while others are drawn to darker, contemporary, abstract art and how all of this factors in!

Ekphrastic poetry is a practice many American poets instill. Elena Karina Byrne’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” Brenda Cárdena’s poem “Our Lady of Sorrows,” and Mary Jo Bang’s “Two Nudes” are just a few examples of ekphrastic poetry in America. The Poetry Foundation Contains a handy link of ekphrastic poetry they have featured in the past. Other examples include the various ways in which ekphrastic poets engage with Instagram either through collaging, setting their text onto photos, captioning, or posting traditional ekphrastic poems on their feed.

Throughout my project I will write ekphrastic poetry inspired by specific pieces of 19th century French Academic Art. Critics have noted that academic art centers around religion, mythology, and history while the painters act as masters of in the portrayal of human emotion through idealist aestheticism derived from the natural world (Goldstein). I hope to further explore these ideas by exploring themes and symbols rooted in religion, history, mythology, psychology, and human emotion through the perspective of idealism and in a floral aesthetic through the use of exaggerated imagery.

  1.   2.   The Awakening of Psyche, 1904 - Guillaume Seignac 3. La Vérité, 1870

1. William Adolphe Bouguereau, Birth of Venus 1879

2. Guillaume Seignac, The Awakening of Psyche 1904.

3. Jules Joseph Lefebvre, The Truth (La Vérité) 1870.





Works Cited

“Academic Art.” MHz Curationist, 24 Jan. 2019, https://www.curationist.org/article/academic-art/.

Goldstein, Carl. “Towards a Definition of Academic Art.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 57, no. 1, 1975, p. 102., https://doi.org/10.2307/3049342.

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