Saturday Art: Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi
Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, by Pierre-Jules Cavelier, is at the D’Orsay, in the open part of the first floor of the converted train station. It is life-size, carved from a block of marble, approximately pyramidal. The head of Tiberius Gracchus breaks that pyramid, giving it emphasis, and the head of Gaius is sheltered in the middle. The flowing robes give movement to the marble, softening the formal poses. Tiberius is separating from his mother, as befits a young teenager: he clutches a scroll, and is dressed in full patrician Roman garb, complete with a badge at his neck. Cornelia’s arm rests on his shoulder, not clutching him to her, not in a protective gesture, more a loving friend than a dominating mother. Despite his confident stance, his right hand brushes her thigh in a way that reciprocates her gesture. Young Gaius is protected between her knees, but she is not holding him there. He chooses to stay, one hand on his mother’s knee, fingertips of the other touching her cupped hand. The touches and the protective but open hands, coupled with the calm looks, show the love of this family.
Cornelia Gracchus was the daughter of Scipio Africanus, a famous Roman general. She married Tiberius Gracchus, who held several important positions in the Roman government, but died when the boys were young. At this link there is a long quote from another site, which unfortunately is dead, discussing the life of Cornelia. She is said to be the model of a virtuous Roman mother.
Under her tutelage, both boys both grew up with a strong sense of justice and fairness. Their backgrounds led them to politics, where both of them worked in what they saw as the interest of the Plebian class. Over the decades, many of that class had been despoiled by the Senate and the aristocrats of the day. The Gracchi brought about land reform, intending to enable the Plebians and other men of Rome to return to farming. The government owned most of the land, and theoretically no one could have more than 300 acres. The aristocrats had leased much more, and got big chunks from small farmers who were forced by to sell by debt or other problems. These reforms infuriated the rich. Both of the Gracchi were assassinated, and their agrarian reforms were abandoned. For more, see this 1901 history.
The statue was presented in 1855. Classically inspired works were common in this era, and many of the paintings and sculptures presented at the Salon were in this vein. The Salon consistently rejected or downplayed the newer pieces like those of the Impressionists. My grade school art teacher, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, explained that the juries judging the Salon thought the new wave artists were undisciplined, lazy and careless, and indifferent to beauty, and probably as was her intent, that made Monet and Van Gogh seem heroic to me.
Now I can see the beauty of the classical style, and the flaws in the Impressionists. This piece is a good example. Cavelier makes demands on his audience, to understand fully they have to understand the context, but those who don’t know the story can see the emotions. if they look carefully. He conveys delicate feelings and the nuances of family relationships, while remaining within the discipline of the classical style. He demonstrates a mastery of complex construction, a fine education, and emotional sensitivity, all expressed in rock.
Reposted in memory of Kathleen D. Walker.
originally posted June 12, 2010.