Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes

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Anne Louis Girodet,Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes,1802

Originally crafted for a small palace intended for Napoleon, this piece by Anne-Louis Girodet and its counterpart, Ossian Evoking Ghosts on the Edge of the Lora, by Francois Gerard were the only pieces in the entire palace Napoleon praised. There was something rare and unique surrounding these works. Both of the pieces focus on the work of the Gaelic poet Ossian, who Napoleon adored at the time. Ossian’s epics caused a sensation, not only because its subject matter fueled the new Romantic movement, but because of the ambiguity surrounding its origins - even its existence.

This particular piece shows brave soldiers prepared for battle and surrounding the poet Ossian; a piece perfect for Napoleon, who was in the middle of a revolution of his own. This snapshot from the battle is told by the narrator Fingal at the edge of battle. In the valley of Valhalla, these men are ready for battle and they look beyond the poet, seeing the inner radiance of their slain brethren. The entire piece feels almost sacred, with the left side clustered with floating maidens promising glory in death.

This piece is busy, crowded, almost ready to spill onto the floor. Despite its compositional weight, I can’t help but love it. Peering into the emotion of these men, observing the earth beneath them wash away, this ominous cloud perpetuates the spirituality and warmth of the piece. The only real disappointment with this piece lies with the backstory of the poet it glorifies. Turns out, the great tales Ossian wrote, that towns were named after and that Napoleon himself carried into battle, were actually forgeries. The originator of the tales, James Macpherson, actually wrote these from fragments sliced from sagas. Even though the context of the piece is a letdown, Girodet’s work is surely not. It glows just as brightly as the people within it.

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