Gustave Surand's St. George and the Monster plays out as a chilling confrontation between animals: a spirited horse, two muscular dogs, and a fantastic, menacing dragon....
Gustave Surand's St. George and the Monster plays out as a chilling confrontation between animals: a spirited horse, two muscular dogs, and a fantastic, menacing dragon. Their vividly portrayed reactions—from slinking fear and sheer terror to cold confidence—stand in contrast to the relatively passive human figures, who seem little more than embellishments.
This is an unusual staging of the well-known religious legend of St. George, who killed a dragon terrorizing a royal city in Libya. In Christian theology that episode symbolizes the triumph of good over evil, and illustrations of it normally depict St. George delivering the coup-de-grace. Surand's shift from human to animal protagonists suggests a different interest. It reveals some of the tensions that came into play when making an ambitious relevant Salon painting in the late 1880s—tensions between the expectations of academic art, natural science, and visual entertainment.
Surand was a master of the academic style, delivering correct drawing, detail realism, and high finish in the service of lifelike illusionism. He was a brilliant and prolific painter of animals, and even his dragon, a figment of the imagination, looks and acts as believably and naturally as the real horse and dogs—possessively guarding its prey and warily eyeing its opponents. Physically, the dragon is a hybrid of various animal species, with an eagle's beak, enormous lion paws, an iguana's wattle and pointy spinal ridge, and the mosaic-like scales of a snake.
This characterization may have been inspired by old, pre-scientific beliefs that dragons were born from the mingled "seed" of decomposing dead animals; or else by ongoing debates over Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection, and over what fossil and dinosaur-bone finds revealed about extinct species. However, Surand's composition was no more intended as a scientific treatise than it was meant to be a religious painting. While its scale and size identified it as a serious work, and while it engaged a current topic, it also delivered the kind of spectacular enchantment viewers had come to expect from large-scale works of art. The picture not only introduced a fantastic yet plausible and up-to-date monster; it also offered an excitingly spiced-up version of the familiar story—titillating with a dose of delectable nudity and gratuitous gore. In addition, Surand furnished the very real pleasures of a perfectly crafted painting: an elegant palette of pearly grays and earthy golds, and technical bravura that embraces flawless high finish in the figures as well as dynamic free brushwork in the rocks. The painting's visual sumptuousness heightens the frisson elicited by the sensational scene.
St. George and the Monster adds an original twist to LACMA's presentation of the late nineteenth century, anchoring a group of other academic works by Rosa Bonheur, Auguste Glaize, and William-Adolphe Bouguereau. The spectacular aspects of Surand's talent—the beauty of style and execution; the fantastic, quasi-scientific interpretation of the story; and, last but not least, the astonishing extravagant dragon—captivate and enchant viewers today as they did in 1888.