Theatrical genre painting in brief
- Everday scenes captured in Italian restaurants, or osterie, grew in popularity with artists of the 1800s
- Contemporary genre painting exhibited new, more theatrical expression due to Bloch. He dramatizes familiar genre scenes by presenting objects in a menacing way
- Such theatrical genre paintings speak to several senses simultaneously
Souvenir pictures from Italy
Scenes of everyday life captured in an Italian restaurant, or osteria, were very popular among artists of the 1800s. Bloch drew inspiration from an osteria scene painted by his instructor, Wilhelm Marstrand, in 1848.Another familiar example is Ditlev Blunck’s painting Danish Artists in the Osteria La Gensola in Rome. In this work, we see a group of Danish artists seated at one table and an idealizing depiction of an Italian family at another.
The pictures functioned as souvenirs, reminding artists and patrons of ‘good times’ and the sensual life of the South.
Bloch’s treatment of the subject is more complex. He dramatizes a familiar genre scene by presenting objects in a menacing way.
If looks could kill…
Can a picture flirt with the viewer?
Yes, one is tempted to respond when facing the painting In a Roman Osteria. The figures in the foreground direct their eyes at the viewer, eliciting a response. Bloch conveys an erotic mood either directly, as seen here, or subtly in the picture’s hidden layers. The viewer meets an extra disturbance in the menacing glare of the man seated at right.
In addition to flirty and threatening looks, we are bombarded by sensory input from the meal, drinks, and other striking elements, including the gold and red accents of the figures’ clothing and the reflections visible in the decanters. Bloch pays special attention to some flies, which disrupt the idyll and remind us of the ‘here and now’ and the transitory nature of life.
There is no avoiding the picture. In an article on the topic, Associate Professor Jens Toft described the situation as follows: “What make Bloch’s paintings unique is his dynamic use of the space in front of the painting, where the viewer stands, and where the artist stood as he executed the work…the [figures] are not only visible to the viewer, but they react openly to the viewer’s presence: the two girls communicate mischievously and the aggressive man displays a hostile look and a knife in his belt. They are caught in the moment when glances are initially exchanged, when the figures become animated and confront the viewer. The viewer enters and takes control, as the painter has just given up.”
It may be noted that the picture builds an extreme oppositional and confrontational presence directed toward the viewer. In Marstrand’s painting, one can ‘sit’ quietly on the right side of the bench and observe. In contrast, Bloch’s picture forces the viewer to perform with the figures depicted.
A shock to the senses
Bloch usually speaks to or engages several senses at once. The sense of touch comes into play in one of his early paintings, which depicts a boy who wakes a girl with a feather. Several of his paintings use a window as an element and they focus on the sense of sight.
In contrast, artist Erik Henningsen, from the same period, has a more graphic, anecdotal way to paint genre motifs. The painting Evicted Tenants presents a social-realist genre in a theatrical way – its scene is packed, but it does not bombard the senses as in works by Bloch or Zahrtmann.
Connections to Dutch Painting
Bloch supposedly drew most of his inspiration from Dutch 17th-century genre painting. He uses many motifs that were popular in the 1600s; for example, assemblages of fish and the slightly humourous scenes of daily life captured in the domestic interiors of peasants.
Bloch’s illusionistic – almost photographic – style of painting focuses on the unappetizing, eliciting what Peter Nørgaard Larsen terms a “meat aversion” as opposed to the “lust of the flesh” that is characteristic of Dutch 17th-century paintings.
The Cat as Witness
There are many telling details in Bloch's genre pictures. The cat on the left side of the painting In a Roman Osteria fulfills a special role. It assures the viewer that a witness to the situation is present. A silent prompter that witnesses the scene, brings peace, and anchors the story. Bloch does not use a random detail, but rather he builds on a longstanding visual tradition where animals function as ‘contacts’ between the picture and viewer.
In the decades preceding Bloch’s arrival in Rome, many other Danish artists used dogs and cats to serve as witnesses in their pictures. See, for example, Thorvaldsen’s relief Old Age and Ernst Meyer’s and Albert Küchler’s Italian street scenes, where animals perform a more theatrical role for the viewer.
Sigurd Schultz: Dansk genremaleri. København 1928
Gitte Valentiner: Wilhelm Marstrand – Scenebilleder. København 1992
Peter Nørgaard Larsen: ”Carl Bloch og kødets ulyst”, in Humaniora. - Årg. 14, nr. 1 1999. - p. 6-9
I lyset af Holland – Mesterværker fra hollandsk og dansk guldalder. Katalogred. Kasper Monrad og Lene Bøgh Rønberg, København Statens Museum for Kunst 2001
Drömmen om Italien – Nordiska resenärer i Södern 1750-1870. Katalogred. Sabrina Norlander. Stockholm Nationalmuseum 2004
Jens Toft: ”Carl Bloch – en Sildefødning”, in: Periskop – forum for kunsthistorisk debat nr. 12, København 2006