Paintings on opera themes

When I go to art museums I am always glad to see paintings on themes that I ‘know’ because they have also been made into operas. I noticed four of these at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux. (Have I overlooked any?)

The one in my first photo is Les Ondines by Ernest Auguste Gendron (1817-1881). The Ondines in French (Undine in German, Rusalka in Czech) are mythological water spirits, sort of like mermaids. Occasionally an Ondine makes the mistake of falling in love with a human (or visa-versa), with tragic consequences for both.

There have been several operas about these water spirits, including one by E.T.A. Hoffmann, who aside from being the hero of an opera was also a composer and especially a famous author. His opera Undine was based not on one of his own stories, but on a novella by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué — and no doubt on his own hopeless infatuation with a fifteen-year-old girl, as I have described in my post on the E.T.A. Hoffmann house in Bamberg.

But the most popular opera about these water spirits is certainly Rusalka by the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. I have seen Rusalka several times in Frankfurt am Main, as mentioned at the end of my post The Fairy Tale Fountain. (See also: Rusalka in Antwerp.)

Enée & Didon by Guérin (1819)

This painting is by Pierre Narcisse Guerin (1774-1833) and is called Enée racontant à Didon les malheurs de Troie (Aeneas telling Dido about the misfortunes of Troy).

I have so far seen two operas about Dido and Aeneas. One is a huge monumental opera called Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), which I have seen in Leipzig, Mannheim and Frankfurt.

The other is a short Baroque opera Dido and Aeneas from the year 1688 or 1689, by the English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695). In 2010 we had a beautiful production of Dido and Aeneas in Frankfurt on the main stage, with Paula Murrihy as Dido and Sebastian Geyer as Aeneas. Since it is so short it was coupled, on the same evening, with a very different opera, Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók. These same productions were later performed in Edinburgh and in Los Angeles, with some of the same singers.

Tarquin & Lucrèce by Titien

Looking at Tarquin & Lucrèce

This painting by Tiziano Vecellio (1489-1576), better known as Titien, has had some illustrious owners, including King Charles I of England, Cardinal Jules Mazarin and King Louis XIV of France. It shows a story that happened in ancient Rome in the year 509 B.C., told for instance by Ovid and Livy, and later re-told by Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare, among others. In the 20th century, this story formed the basis of the opera “The Rape of Lucretia” by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).

In 2008 I saw a moving production of this opera in the Bockenheimer Depot, the alternative venue of the Frankfurt Opera. The stage director was the American baritone Dale Duesing, who as a young singer many years before had sung the role of Prince Tarquinius under the direction of Benjamin Britten himself.

Clorinde & Tancredi by Mauzaisse (1817)

Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse (1784-1862) painted this picture of “The Baptism and Death of Clorinde” in 1817. The episode is from an epic poem called Jerusalem Delivered by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso (1544–1595), who is well-known in Germany not for his own works but because Goethe later wrote a play about him.

Tasso’s poem takes place in the First Crusade and includes countless episodes which have been made into numerous operas. This particular episode is about a Christian knight, Tancredi, who falls in love with a Muslim warrior-maiden called Clorinda. During a nighttime battle he mistakenly kills her, not recognizing her in the darkness, but as she is dying she converts to Christianity and he baptizes her.

The world’s first real opera composer, Claudio Monteverdi, put this story to music in an operatic scene (sort of a short opera) in 1624, under the title Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. This was staged at the Bockenheimer Depot in Frankfurt by David Hermann in 2006, in combination with two other Monteverdi fragments.

See also: Lully and Strauss in Nancy for more productions by David Hermann (and scroll down for the painting of Armide flying in on a ferocious dragon to destroy her magic palace).

Musée des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux

Even for those who are not looking for opera stories, the Musée des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux is a rewarding museum. It was founded in 1801, and its collections now include 2297 paintings and 666 sculptures representing the principal currents of European art from the 15th to the 20th century. The museum is located behind the City Hall on the street called Cours d’Albret. It is open daily from 11:00 to 18:00, except Tuesdays and holidays. Admission as of 2018 costs 5€, or 3€ for those who get a reduction.

South Wing seen from the North Wing

The museum consists of two separate buildings which for some reason are called “wings” (ailes), though they are not joined together in any way. My photo shows the entrance to the South Wing as seen from inside the North Wing. Admission tickets are sold in the South Wing, which also contains the earliest artworks, from the 15th to the 18th centuries.

Pérugin, around 1500

They are all still wearing halos in this painting from the year 1500, on display in the South Wing. The painting shows the Virgin between Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine. It was painted by Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci (1446-1523), better known as Le Pérugin.

Jan Breughel, Wedding Dance, 1600

Not a halo in sight a century later in this “Wedding Dance” by Jan Bruegel the Elder (1568-1625). This painting from the year 1600 should not be confused with an earlier and more famous painting of the same name by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who was Jan Bruegel’s father.

St. Peter and St. Mark

By the 17th century even the saints had to do without halos, as in this painting (attributed to Giuseppe Vermiglio) of Saint Mark taking dictation from Saint Peter. This painting surprised me because I never knew that Saint Mark was Saint Peter’s secretary. (Perhaps as a child I should have paid closer attention in Sunday School.)

Entrance to the North Wing

The North Wing of the Musée des Beaux Arts picks up where the South Wing left off and shows artworks mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries.

St. Louis by Guillon-Lethière

The painting on the right is by Guillaume Guillon (1760-1832), also known as Letiers or Lethiere. It was first presented at the Paris Salon of 1822 and is called Saint Louis Visiting Plague Victims on the Plains of Carthage.

Actually Louis IX was not yet a saint at this time, just an ordinary king who was off marauding — or crusading, as it was then called — in foreign countries.

Visiting the plague victims (who were soldiers in his army) was no doubt a courageous and saintly thing for Louis to do, but it was not very sensible because he caught the plague (or more likely dysentery) himself and died of it on August 25, 1270. (I have mentioned this at the end of my post on the Château de Vincennes.)

Bacchante by Bouguereau

The lovely young lady in this painting is being attacked by a huge goat, but she does not look the slightest bit alarmed. On the contrary, she is smiling sweetly and with her left hand she has a firm hold on the goat’s beard, so he won’t get away. The explanation for this unusual behavior can be seen in her right hand, which is resting on a thyrsus, a staff of giant fennel with a pine cone at the top. This in ancient times was the symbol of Bacchus (or Dionysus), the god of wine, fertility, theater, debauchery, ritual madness and religious ecstasy. The goat might be one of the satyrs of Bacchus, or perhaps even Bacchus himself.

The painting is from the year 1862 and is by the traditional academic painter William Bouguereau (1825-1905). It is called Une Bacchante or Bacchante lutinant une chèvre (“bacchante teasing a goat”). Despite the awesome size of the goat, the scene is a tame 19th century version of an ancient bacchanal. By coincidence I saw a more authentic version a few days later when I went to an exhibit in Paris of ancient Greek vases decorated with pictures of the god Dionysus and his followers. (See my post Dionysian frenzy.)

Quais of Bordeaux by Alfred Smith

Alfred Smith (1854-1936) was a French impressionist painter (despite his English name) who was born in Bordeaux and died in Paris. He painted this view of the Quais of Bordeaux in 1892.

Port of Bordeaux by Lacour

Pierre Lacour (Père) (1745-1814) was the painter who founded the Musée des Beaux Arts in 1801. He was the first curator of the museum, a position he held until his death is 1814. It took him two years (1804-1806) to paint this large and detailed view of the port of Bordeaux, because he was also teaching and running the museum at the same time. It is said that he presented this painting to the Empress Joséphine (wife of Napoléon) when she visited Bordeaux in 1808.

Crouching woman by Zadkine

The Musée des Beaux Arts has two sculptures by the Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967), whose atelier in Paris has been preserved and is now a museum devoted to his works. This first one is a white plaster casting of his “Crouching woman”.

Mauriac by Zadkine

This is a bronze casting of Zadkine’s bust of the author François Mauriac, as seen from three different angles.

François Mauriac (1885-1970) was born, grew up and studied in Bordeaux before moving to Paris in 1907. He became a prolific author who was elected to the French Academy in 1933 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1952.

Zadkine made his bust of Mauriac in 1943, while he was living in exile in New York, having fled there to escape the Nazis. To make the bust, Zadkine had to work from memory and from photos. Mauriac was a conservative French Catholic who had nothing to fear from the Nazis or the Vichy regime, so he stayed in France during the war and was (secretly) active in the Resistance.

Le mystère Frontenac

Zadkine and Mauriac had met once, in 1937, but not much is known about their meeting or about their subsequent relations. Whether Mauriac bought the bust or Zadkine gave it to him, it had a prominent place in Mauriac’s apartment (38 avenue Théophile-Gautier in Paris, 16th arrondissement) for many years. Both the plaster original of the bust and this bronze casting (one of three that were cast in 1963) were bequeathed to the city of Bordeaux by Mauriac’s widow, who died in 1983.

On my bookshelf I still have a paperback copy of Mauriac’s novel Le mystère Frontenac which I bought decades ago from a bouquiniste on the banks of the Seine in Paris. I still haven’t read it (beyond the first few pages), but perhaps now would be a good time.

My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2018.

See also: Zadkine’s sculptures in Paris.

3 thoughts on “Paintings on opera themes”

  1. Fun article, Don. We were in the Beaux Arts in Bordeaux in September last and thoroughly enjoyed it. I honestly didn’t know Dvorak had composed an opera. Will have to look it up. We always look for paintings with French horns, celli and double basses in them since that represents our family. I look for paintings of Rosa Bonheur too as she is a particular favorite of mine and there was a really nice Bonheur exhibit in Bordeaux when we were there. It’s on my current blog.

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