Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Monsters of the deep in 18th-century France

François Boucher was one of the most prominent artists of the French Rococo, painting countless highly stylized, gracious, gnomically allusive canvases and murals. For example:

Boucher, The Rising of the Sun (1753)
But look a little more closely at the lower-left hand corner of that painting. Do you see anything odd?

In between the babies and the sea goddesses, there is some kind of giant, ugly fish monster. And it keeps showing up, too, as in the pendant Setting of the Sun, adored by sea nymphs:
Setting of the Sun (1752)

Or the Boucher Birth of Venus:

What are those things? And why do they constantly have nymphs and cherubs around them?

It turns out that this is how dolphins were painted by 18th century French painters who had never actually seen a dolphin before. They thought they were basically just big, carpy fish, and because they'd never been anywhere where you'd actually encounter a dolphin, depictions became more and more mannered over time, until they bore absolutely no resemblance to actual dolphins. One would think that Mediterranean painters might have fared better, but not necessarily:
Francesco Bianchi Ferrari, Arion and the Dolphin (early 16th century?)
And this is a Roman mosaic of a dolphin from the ruins of Tunis:

What's amazing to me is that somehow dolphins made the jump from completely incorrect, mostly imagined depictions—a point when dolphins could have been unicorns for all that "realism" was concerned—to being the victims of complete and total schlock, as any Google Images results for "dolphin painting" will reveal:

Somehow we missed the great age of dolphin art! There were no dolphin Neoclassicists or Realists or Impressionists. No dolphin Cubists, and certainly no dolphin Surrealists. We jumped straight from Rococo fantasy to kitsch in one bound, just like a dolphin leaping out of the water for a big sardine.


  1. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

  2. How refreshing to have an art lesson from a past student. If I was still teaching this would have been my Art Question Of The Week next week.'s always tricky including French Rococo as we have all those naked bodies floating around which make 4th-8th graders giggle and point.