Energy, enargeia and excitement: the cinematic paintings of Phillipe- Jacques de Loutherbourg
I just can hardly believe but it is true. There are only two paintings on display in a London museum by the prolific painter and highly important innovative scenographer of the theatre, Philip James Loutherbourg (born in Strasbourg as Phillipe-Jacques de Loutherbourg) Loutherbourg was born in 1740 and died in 1812; he worked in Paris then moved to London in 1771. In that lifetime he revolutionised the English theatre, made many innovative paintings, created immersive installation art and created the first ever moving picture show. Yet who has heard of him today?
The pictures you can see are The Battle of Camperdown at the Tate Britain
'The Battle of Camperdown', Philip James De Loutherbourg, 1799 | Tate
Artwork page for 'The Battle of Camperdown', Philip James De Loutherbourg, 1799 on display at Tate Britain. De…
and the fascinating Coalbrookdale at Night one of the very first pictures of the Industrial Revolution in action.
Coalbrookdale by Night | Science Museum Group Collection
Painting, [Coalbrookdale by Night] / by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, 1801. Oil on canvas; 68x106.7cm, in gilt…
It is really a dreadful pity that more of his paintings are not on display, because his work is extremely interesting. Although he was highly acclaimed as an academic painter by both the Royal Academy and the French Academy (Diderot for one praised him highly) he has not come down in the Canon of art history as being particularly important; he is more seen as a curiosity — a scene designer and the inventor of what is possibly one of the very first motion picture houses. In 1781 he invented a kind of moving painting and light show in London, the “Eidophusikon” — based on the principles of the mechanical theatre, but specifically oriented around lighting and painting.
The first-ever moving picture show?
Filmmakers and film historians take note!
The Eidophusikon was a large, boxlike structure housed in a capacious room. The audience sat in seats arranged like a theatre. The box had multiple layers that, with the use of levers and pulleys, could move. The layers consisted of paintings and layers of coloured silks. There were lit by changing lights, a real feat in the days before both electricity and gaslight! Loutherbourg arranged for a soundtrack — but it’s not clear exactly what that was, because it had to be played live. I assume it was musicians, creating both music and sound effects. Loutherbourg ran this show for several years near Leicester Square in London. It was popular: Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough (the principal English painters of the age) both came and Gainsborough absolutely loved it, visiting almost daily.
But the paintings …
But his paintings themselves are very interesting because of the way in which he activates the scene and implies movement; he is also quite an unusual colourist. His pictures are more dramatic than is common in 18th-century British painting, as this depiction of the Battle of Camperdown shows. He did not only paint battle scenes, but the ones he did do are really exciting and movie-like! He made a particularly good and dramatic version of the Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1796; in Greenwich’s Maritime Museum, but criminally not on display) and a number of excellent paintings of the French Revolutionary Wars; my favourite is his painting of the Battle of the Nile (also Greenwich, also not on display — grrrr!).
Clearly, Loutherbourg’s paintings are highly cinematic not only because of his skill in painting — his ability to compose, light and colour his pictures is not in doubt — but because of his desire to embed the viewer inside the picture, to give the still image something of the tension and excitement of vicariously being there. This is what he tried to do in his work with David Garrick at the Drury Lane theatre, and in his devising of the Eidophusikon.
He was one of the first to make what today we’d call installation art. Actually there was more of that going on in the late 18th century than we realize . But it was commercial, made to sell tickets, so isn't in the art history. However, briefly following a more traditional path of patronage, Loutherbourg did accept a commission from the richest man in England, William Beckford, author of Vathek (a lurid, super entertaining Gothic novel) and unstinting sybarite (because you would be, if you were Beckford).
Loutherbourg created a massive, occultic special effects show in Beckford’s palatial home, a setting for the orgies over which Beckford and his lovers presided. While no precisely detailed account of the work exists, it seems it involved scenes from Hell, devils and a “lake of fire” inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost. Loutherbourg pulled out all of his theatrical tricks, painting aesthetics, colour techniques and occult knowledge. He spent the money he got from Beckford to open a second season of the Eidophusikon. At the end of the season, he calmly returned to easel painting and produced a slew of magnificent history paintings which is how I first got to know about him.
I suppose the thing that first engaged me when I looked at The Battle of Alexandria many years ago in Edinburgh, was that it seemed like a shot from a film, a film that I wanted to see more of. I expect that if he was alive today he would be a director of monumental works, a Scott or Villeneuve. The Battle of Alexandria really stayed with me; its depiction of the violence was frightful, realistic yet somehow incredibly moving — I felt for the soldiers in the picture, fighting a stupid war between Europeans in North Africa . How often does that happen?! I noted down the name of the painter and wanted to know more about him and was very frustrated to learn that although there are large numbers of his paintings around (he lived many years in Britain), most of the museums that have them just don’t display them, thinking they're not important I suppose. Later, when I started researching the relationship between cinema and painting I was astounded and fascinated to learn about his work as a scene designer, which was really innovative, and his quest to create some kind of dynamic moving image, which led to his invention of the Eidophusikon — which has got to be seen as a stage in the development of the cinema! It’s clear that, in any subject matter, from landscape to mythic scenes to historical pictures, Loutherbourg was interested in visual expression and expressivity, in depicting an active, realistic sublime. His studies in alchemy gave him some deep knowledge of colour (that may be why his paintings have lasted better than those of Joshua Reynolds who experimented with pigments but didn't comprehend chemistry very well).
I wonder if Loutherbourg’s absence from the art history and film history conversation is that he was an alchemist and a mystic. He actually quit art and theatre for a while to work with the strange occultist Cagliostro. He spent time as a faith healer as well, setting up a practice in London, but he returned to painting, where he made these massive history paintings and also illustrated an edition of Paradise Lost, among other things. He was close friends with Thomas Gainsborough and was a member of the Royal Academies of both France and Britain.
I love brilliant eccentrics, like Eric Satie and Loutherbourg and I love the work they produce. It is sad that art history and film history likes to emphasize the rational and they don't really have any time for a strange, wonderful character like Loutherbourg.
If you want to see a recreation of the Eidophusikon, here is one on Vimeo Even now, it is still amazing and uncanny to see!
To know more about Loutherbourg’s Inferno installation:
McCalman, I. (2007) The Virtual Infernal: Philippe de Loutherbourg, William Beckford and the Spectacle of the Sublime. Romanticism on the Net, (46), [Online] Available from: https://www.erudit.org/fr/revues/ron/2007-n46-ron1782/016129ar/