(b. 1767, Montargis, d. 1824, Paris)

Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of French Heroes

Oil on canvas, 192 x 184 cm
Musée National du Château de Malmaison, Rueil

This painting was an early example of the new subjects that would occupy the emergent French Romantic movement. The commission was given to Girodet in 1801 for the decoration of the small palace of Malmaison, which Napoleon was having furnished for his own use. Two paintings on the subject of Ossian were to flank the chimney breast in the reception room. The other was to be painted by François Gérard. They were the only two paintings to praised by the owner of the palace, and not without reason. Napoleon was also seized by the current wave of enthusiasm for the prose epics of the legendary Gaelic poet Ossian.

Ossian purports to be a translation of an epic cycle of Scottish poems from the early dark ages. Ossian, a blind bard, sings of the life and battles of Fingal, a Scotch warrior. Ossian caused a sensation when it was published on the cusp of the era of revolutions, and had a massive cultural impact during the 18th and 19th centuries. Napoleon carried a copy into battle; Goethe translated parts of it; the city of Selma, Alabama was named after the home of Fingal, and one of Ingres' most romantic and moody paintings, the Dream of Ossian was based on it. The originator of the "unearthed, old Irish fragments" Fingal and Temora, published in 1762 and 1763, was a Scot, James Macpherson (1736-1796). Ten years after Macpherson's death it was discovered that the poems were forgeries, written by Macpherson himself from fragments of sagas.

In Girodet's painting the heroes surround the blind poet in Valhalla, in fanatical devotion, and ready for battle. In his train we see fallen warrior heroes of history, illuminated as with an inner radiance, and, as if in reward, surrounded by fairy-like floating maidens.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.