Ascent of a Montgolfier Balloon at AranjuezCa. 1784. Oil on canvas, 169 x 279.5 cm.
The event depicted in this painting by Antonio Carnicero illustrates the interest in scientific advances characteristic of the Enlightenment, a historical period from the second half of the 18th century dominated by practical reason. The image shows French balloon pilot Bouclé’s experiment in the gardens of the Royal Seat at Aranjuez on June 5, 1784, during the final years of Charles III’s reign. It was Spain’s first manned balloon flight and it ended in an accident, as the daring pilot was injured when he failed to successfully control the apparatus’s descent. It has also been suggested that this work by Carnicero actually depicts a previous test, which took place on November 23, 1783, when the Marquis d’Aile and Pilâtre de Rozier attempted a flight before the royal family and the court at the Royal Seat of El Escorial.
From an artistic standpoint, the painting narrates a true event, and in that sense, it contrasts with the catastrophist fantasies of contemporaneous artists, including the numerous shipwrecks and storms invented by 18th-century European artists such as Claude-Joseph Vernet, some of which were deliberately grandiloquent in keeping with the esthetic theory of the sublime. But here, the accent is on a lived experience. The painter attempts to capture the moment without striving for esthetic sensationalism. Instead, he seeks the greatest possible veracity in recording an unprecedented event, employing all his resources to that end. The composition is therefore quite schematic, with a rigorous horizontality that is only enlivened by the figures, most of which are dressed in festive clothing that represents the privileged elite as well as others of quite varied class and condition.
Carnicero’s style is direct and prosaic, reflecting his customary preference for costumbrista scenes, with a rather strange palette. The stiff figures and lack of imagination weaken this work, which could have been a fine example of popular charm. Still, its colorfulness, relaxed atmosphere, documentary intentions and ties to a genre scene make it uncommonly attractive among such compositions, of which there are very few. There is a reduced version of inferior quality at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Bilbao (Text drawn from Luna, J. J.: El Prado en el Ermitage, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2011, pp. 182-183).