The Wagnerian genius

The Wagnerian genius

  • Frontispiece of a collection of music.

    FANTIN-LATOUR Henri (1836 - 1904)

  • First scene of the Rheingold (The Gold of the Rhine).

    FANTIN-LATOUR Henri (1836 - 1904)

  • Richard Wagner.

    RENOIR Pierre Auguste (1841 - 1919)

  • Richard Wagner.

    GROUX Henri Jules Charles de (1867 - 1930)

To close

Title: Frontispiece of a collection of music.

Author : FANTIN-LATOUR Henri (1836 - 1904)

Creation date : 1888

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 30.5 - Width 22.5

Technique and other indications: Lead mine

Storage location: Lille Palace of Fine Arts website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - J. Quecq d'Henripret

Picture reference: 00-019017 / Inv.W.1938

Frontispiece of a collection of music.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - J. Quecq d'Henripret

To close

Title: First scene of the Rheingold (The Gold of the Rhine).

Author : FANTIN-LATOUR Henri (1836 - 1904)

Creation date : 1888

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 116.5 - Width 79

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas

Storage location: Kunsthalle website

Contact copyright: © BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais - Elke Walford

Picture reference: 04-503141

First scene of the Rheingold (The Gold of the Rhine).

© BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais - Elke Walford

To close

Title: Richard Wagner.

Author : RENOIR Pierre Auguste (1841 - 1919)

Creation date : 1882

Date shown: January 15, 1882

Dimensions: Height 53 - Width 46

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 01-018298 / RF1947-11

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Publication date: September 2008

Historical context

Wagner: an aura existing against time and borders

Obviously, Richard Wagner dislikes painting "that leaves him totally cold," as Thomas Mann put it. Is it because the painting holds the composer's visionary imagination within limits that are too narrow, fixed and material? The visual character of Wagner's works is nonetheless no doubt for many artists, and especially in France. Going far beyond the framework of the Bayreuth theater, and even beyond his death in 1883, the aura of the master aroused immense enthusiasm in Paris, propelled his operas on the stage, even motivated in 1885 the creation of a Wagnerian review, just as it ignites the desire to paint.
The year 1861 is first of all decisive. The musician, then exiled in Paris, played Tannhäuser on the stage of the Opera; the three performances alone are enough to raise a lively controversy over the "Wagnerian genius", initiated and passionately animated by Baudelaire. The conflict that began in 1870 between France and Prussia further fueled the debate; a part of the public, nationalist, comes up against the Germanic character of the music of the master, while the other spectators, convinced Wagnerians, proclaim their enthusiasm. The painter Henri Fantin-Latour is one of them: passionate about music, he is one of the rare witnesses to the creation of Ring in Bayreuth in 1876. De Groux discovered Wagner’s work not in Bayreuth, but in the many evenings devoted to him at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, then at the Colonne Concerts in Paris; now it is indeed there, in the darkness of these rooms, that the painter finds the renewal of his creative forces, and that he even finally senses the limits of his art ... "Late and irreparable revelation of my true vocation which was to be, not a painter, but a musician and composer. And it is to Wagner that I owe this marvelous and appalling discovery ... "(Henry de Groux, Newspaper, July 19, 1897).

Image Analysis

When the brush is measured against the Wagnerian genius

Wagnerism first displays a face, that of the composer. In the last decades of the 19th century, the cult of genius naturally associated with the figure of the composer, explaining, for example, the eagerness with which Renoir, in 1882, asked Wagner to meet him and paint his portrait. Showing very early on the reappropriation of the Germanic icon by the Impressionist school, the result nevertheless disappoints the musician, not very sensitive to the pictorial innovations of his time; the head noticeably turned, the distant and pensive gaze, the projections of the face softened by the vaporous touch and the shades of pink and blue indeed give the composer an amiable and human air. At the turn of the 20th century, the construction of the Wagner myth soon transformed the portrait into an icon. De Groux thus schematizes the silhouette of Wagner to retain only the forms which express the will to action and the visionary spirit: an authoritarian and imperious profile, summarily brushed, radiating beyond time and space on a monochrome background black.
A cult object, Wagner also establishes himself, through his work, as an essential part of creation.
It is that his operas give to have. Yesterday as today, the composer's legendary geographies come alive in the imagination of the beholder: the Venusberg (Tannhäuser), Cornish lands (Tristan and Isolde) or the depths of the Rhine (Rhine Gold), explored here by Fantin-Latour. Himself spectator of Ring in 1876, the painter approached Wagner’s work well as a repertoire of ideas and themes; but beyond illustration, he transposes his staging memories into real living scenes. In Fantin-Latour's music, the master's music feeds an ambitious project: that of "translating one art into another". "For me," he says, "it's in music that we can recognize ourselves. I think about it all the time while painting, I do it a bit, I have tried to express a little of what I feel in my lithographs and my little paintings on Berlioz, on Wagner. »(Interview of Fantin-Latour with Camille Mauclair, in Camille Mauclair, Servitude and literary grandeur, Paris, Ollendorff, 1922, p. 157). Thus the movement of the Ondines, "sometimes downwards, sometimes upwards" recalls the melodic profile of their song in the first scene of Rhine Gold. In short, it is a good thing for Fantin-Latour, as for most painters inspired by the master's operas, to measure himself against the Wagnerian genius.


Wagnerism: a permeable notion

The confrontation of these three works reveals the indistinct mixture of currents and thoughts preoccupied with the Wagnerian question at the turn of the twentieth century. The master’s work crystallizes a varied range of feelings according to individualities, always more malleable, suitable for the most contrasting speeches. This polysemy of the gaze also makes it possible to appreciate the delicate notion of "Wagnerism", by underlining its multiple and sometimes contradictory definitions. Because Wagnerism is at the same time a movement of support for the musician, a reflection on the union of the arts, the craze for a dramaturgy elevated to the rank of myth, a sign of the artistic avant-garde, a political ideology, an absolute and even a religion.

  • Germany
  • Franco-German special issue
  • music
  • opera
  • Wagner (Richard)


Annegret FAUSER (dir.),Von Wagner zum Wagnerism. Musik, Litteratur, Kunst, Politik,>, Leipzig Universität Verlag, 1999 (collections of articles in German, French and English). Léon GUICHARD,Music and letters in the time of Wagnerism, Paris, PUF, 1963, Martine KAHANE and Nicole WILD,Wagner and France, Paris, Herscher, 1983.Cécile LEBLANC,Wagnerism and creation in France: 1883-1889, Paris, H. Champion, 2005.Timothée PICARD,Wagner: a European question: Contribution to a study of Wagnerism, 1860-2004, Rennes, PU Rennes, 2006.

To cite this article

Marie-Pauline MARTIN, "The Wagnerian genius"

Video: Wagners The Flying Dutchman Told in 3 Minutes