Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Marcus Curtius Saves The Day

“Marcus Curtius” 
Benjamin Robert HAYDON
oil on canvas , 76.5 x 63.5 cm
NGV, purchased 1897

 The modern tourist in Rome will hardly notice a small paved basin in the Forum, next to a modest marble plaque showing a fully-accoutred Roman soldier on horseback. This is all that remains of the mighty chasm that, according to legend, opened on that spot in 360BC, three centuries before all the unpleasantness with the Christians and their new god.

This yawning pit was down to the old gods, who announced, (no doubt through an oracle or spokespriest), their requirement for closing it again: Rome’s most precious possession should be thrown in. The good citizens of Rome panicked, especially those who actually had precious posessions.
The Lacus Curtius in the Roman Forum today
Luckily, before any official requisitioning of gold or jewels could take place, Marcus Curtius claimed his fifteen minutes of fame, neatly anticipating  Andy Warhol’s famous pronouncement by two millennia. Announcing that nothing was more precious than a brave Roman, Curtius leaped into the chasm, together with his unfortunate horse, who had no say in the matter but doesn’t look best pleased.

Plaque at the Lacus Curtius
Hero or bloody idiot, take your pick, but either way, the chasm closed as promised. The wealthy citizens of Rome heaved a sigh of relief, named the lake, which appeared on the spot, Lacus Curtius, and resumed business as usual.  Over the centuries, the Forum was drained and paved, leaving only the small basin, which is still called the Lacus Curtius.

The Leap of Marcus Curtius by Veronese
The spectacular feat of Marcus Curtius has been the subject of many pictures, including this circular one by Veronese. It was also a favourite subject depicted on plates and bowls. Indeed, one such very attractive majolica dish, purchased through the Felton Bequest in 1940, can be seen in the NGV’s collection of decorative arts.

Majolica dish in the NGV collection
In 1842 Haydon began a huge painting of Marcus Curtius, over three metres in height, which is now at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter. The painting was indifferently received. Haydon made several smaller copies, which sold to friends. The one in the NGV is one such version. It was bought by Haydon’s patron Richard Twentyman, who, shortly after purchasing it, emigrated to Australia. It was then bought by Robert Allan and sold at auction to the NGV in 1897.
Benjamin Robert Haydon
The painter, Benjamin Robert Haydon, is a bit of a sad case. He yearned to paint grand historical pictures, but he was not successful at selling them. He was determined to force his idea of Heroic Art on a public that had moved on from that style of painting. They must be forced, scolded and lectured to admire it. He was too arrogant to adapt himself to the trend of public taste.

Benjamin Robert Haydon
Haydon was inclined to give the heroes in his pictures his own features, and Curtius is one such self-portrait. When the picture was first exhibited in 1843, it was poorly reviewed and even ridiculed by some. Haydon was indignant. He wrote in his journal: “I had a grey mare, which I kept leaping for two hours, – I sketched as he descended in the leap ...two men held up his legs & corn was put on the ground … I sketched his neck during the eating. After all this careful thought, comes a boyish critic with his black ribbon round his neck, ... and abuses the picture accordingly.”
He was always in financial strife, and on more than one occasion found himself in debtor’s prison. He was reluctantly forced to paint portraits to make ends meet. He was full of scorn and loathing for portraiture, feeling it was unworthy of him and his high ideals.

Marcus Curtius by Eustache de Sueur
He was extremely tactless, if not downright rude, in his dealings with patrons, which did not help his cause at all.  The Royal Academy did not give his work the accolades he thought it deserved. He did himself no favours by his vitriolic criticism of this august body, when a judicious bit of sucking up might have garnered his work a more sympathetic reception.

He was bitterly disillusioned when his proposed murals for the new Houses of Parliament were rejected in 1843. However, he tried to rise above the disappointment.  He would hold an exhibition of the rejected works, together with a few of his huge historical canvases. His masterpieces  would be seen and acclaimed by an appreciative public. He hired a room in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, in which to exhibit them.

General Tom Thumb
Meanwhile, General Tom Thumb, the three-foot tall celebrity midget and circus performer, was holding public “levéés” in another room of the Egyptian Hall. While large numbers of spectators crowded in to see this spectacle, very few looked in on Haydon’s exhibition.

The painter’s vanity was severely wounded. He wrote bitterly in his diary:  "21 April. Tom Thumb had 12,000 people last week. B. R. Haydon 133½ (the ½ a little girl). Exquisite taste of the English people!" To make matters worse, he attracted ridicule by abusing the public in the national press, contrasting his own superior merits with the vulgar crudeness of the people at large. (He would have called them a bunch of bogans had he known the word.)

The burden of his debts and his mortified vanity finally drove him to suicide.  Sadly, he got that wrong as well: after a botched attempt at shooting himself, he had to finish the job by cutting his throat. 

Marcus Curtius by Simon de Vos


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