French painter Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson was born on January 29, 1767. A versatile painter and illustrator, Girodet was probably the illegitimate son of Dr. Trioson and he adopted his surname in 1806. After a false start in architecture, he trained as a painter under David, rapidly becoming one of his most talented followers. Girodet won the Prix de Rome in 1789, working in Italy until 1795. His smooth, sculptural finish linked him with Neoclassicism, but his choice of subject matter became increasingly Romantic. He often opted for poetic, nocturnal themes or for literary subjects, such as Chateaubriand’s story of Atala.
More Romantic still was his most famous picture Ossian, which was commissioned for Bonaparte’s country retreat at Malmaison. This exploited the contemporary craze for Celtic subject matter, and depicted a misty scene with a bard-like figure welcoming Napoleon’s generals into paradise. Girodet also produced coolly erotic nudes, which betrayed his fondness for Mannerist artists such as Correggio. Girodet had a waspish personality, which occasionally landed him in trouble.
There were frequent clashes with David, and his scurrilous portrait of Mademoiselle Lange created a public scandal. Miss Lange was a talented actress known for her beauty and wealthy lovers. Girodet had painted an earlier portrait of her that she found unflattering. When she refused to pay the agreed-upon price and insisted that the painting be removed from public view at the Paris Salon, the enraged Girodet sought revenge with this second, satirical portrait. Eighteenth-century artists sometimes portrayed people as mythological characters to highlight their virtues. Girodet inverted this convention to defame Miss Lange. Danae was one of the mortals loved by the Greek god Zeus, who transformed himself into a shower of gold and fell upon her. Girodet shows Miss Lange greedily catching the gold coins. All of the painting’s details are scathingly symbolic. For example, the turkey wearing a wedding ring represents a man the actress married for his fortune. The cracked mirror denotes her inability to see herself as Girodet saw her—a vain, adulterous, and avaricious woman. In later life, he inherited a considerable fortune and his artistic output diminished. He died on December 9, 1824.