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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Theodore Chasseriau

Macbeth and Banquo Meeting the Witches on the Heath, 1855, Theodore Chasseriau
Theodore Chasseriau Self-portrait,
1835, age sixteen.
If you're ever strolling through a major art museum, especially in Europe, and you encounter a young nude girl with her arms lifted over her head...try not to stare. Just kidding. Assuming it's the subject of a painting, you can also pretty safely assume it's by a young French artist named Theodore Chasseriau. Not all of Chasseriau's nude female figures did he have assume that pose, but the above assumption is still apt in that he was virtually the only mid-19th century painter who did. Chasseriau is important for one major reason and a couple relatively minor ones (which we've already discussed). He was, first of all, a student of Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, which means he was an excellent draftsman. When his famed instructor left Paris to head the French Academy in Rome, Chasseriau switched to Eugene Delacroix, which means he became an expert colorist. He was thus the only major painter of that era to have studied under both these highly acclaimed artists.
The artist's sisters, 1843, the drawing
reflects Ingres, the colors are those of
Delacroix. No uplifted arms here.
There was a good reason for that. Switching instruction from Ingres to Delacroix would, today, be like a staff aid for President Obama, suddenly quitting and going to work for Tea Party Senator Ted Cruz (R. Texas). Six years later, in 1840, when Chasseriau journeyed to Rome to try explaining his seeming disloyalty to his former painting master, they parted no longer on speaking terms. Ingres and Delacroix were bitter rivals, artistically speaking, and hardly on speaking terms personally, which made little difference in that they seldom met. Ingres was a follower of Nicholas Poussin, who praised drawing over painting, while Delacroix was a follower of Peter Paul Rubens, a painter's painter if there ever was one. Ingres celebrated restrained color subservient to draftsmanship, while Delacroix, the leading Romanticist was also the leading colorist on the French art scene during his lifetime (he died in 1863). Their philosopical dispute split the French Academy for the better part of the 19th century.

 Esther Preparing Herself to Meet King Ahasuerus, 1841, Theodore Chasseriau
Artist's brother, Ernest, painted in
1835 at the age of 13, about the
time Chasseriau and Ingres
parted company.
The important point is that both sides had strong arguments. That is, both were right, neither were wrong. Chasseriau, whether deliberately, or by accident, thus became the benificiary of both types of painting--his work is well drawn and well colored. His 1841 Bath of Esther (arms upraised, of course) is probably his most famous and instantly recognizable work. It is also the most notable example of this synthesis of painting styles. As he grew older and more confident, Chasseriau's Macbeth and Banquo Meeting the Witches on the Heath (top) from 1855, indicates that he became more and more like Delacroix, less and less like the restrained, classical Ingres. Perhaps because of this, he became more and more successful. In fact, the young artist worked himself into an early grave. He died in 1856 at the age of thirty-seven.
The Bather, 1850, Theodore Chasseriau. Apparently shaven armpits were
becoming quite common in Paris, at least among Chasseriau's models.


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