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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Charles Gleyre

Lost Illusions, original 1843 version, Charles Gleyre
Charles Gleyre, Self-portrait, 1850s
Can you imagine being an art instructor and looking down at your class roster to find the names Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Frederic Bazille, and James McNeill Whistler listed among your new students? The year was 1862 and that was the surprising discovery of Monsieur Marc Charles Gabriel Gleyre, the owner and operator of a private Paris art academy. Gleyre knew there would be trouble when four out of five of these new students (all in their early 20s) wanted to paint outdoors. And primarily, they were interested in painting landscapes. Gleyre had been a student of the famous painter, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He taught anatomy and classical painting. These guys were more interested in the flirting with the nude model than in painting her. Moreover, Gleyre hadn't painted a landscape in years and never in his life painted outdoors. They wanted to go on a painting field trip to the forests of Fontainebleau forgodsakes, a train ride of several hours. Gleyre informed them in no uncertain terms that if they wished to go traipsing through the woods with paint boxes, canvas, and easels in hand they'd do so without him. He had a business to run, after all.
The Bodmer Oak, Fontainebleau, 1865, Claude Monet
--not quite Gleyre's area of expertise.
Gleyre's many students.
One must have modeled in exchange for instruction.
Another has a halo.
Indications are Gleyre's four renegade future Impressionists did just that, missing classes more often than not. Only the sullen American, Whistler, took his studies seriously, by attending classes regularly (along with Gleyre's numerous other students, of course). Gleyre had taken over the private academy of Paul Delaroche several years before, in 1843, when his friend began teaching full-time at the French academy. It was an ideal situation. He could pretty much paint full-time while twice a week earning a little extra (often he charged nothing) teaching and mentoring students either without the talent, or perhaps, the money to attend the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Some of his students were brushing up their skills hoping to pass the Ecole's strenuous entrance exam. Others were hardly more than what we'd term today as hobbyists. Gleyre was a confirmed bachelor, somewhat the quiet, intellectual sort, and a precision painter almost to a fault. Although his style might suggest otherwise, technically speaking, Gleyre was not an academician. However, had he not been Swiss, not been somewhat reluctant to promote himself and his work, and more prolific in his output, he, like Delaroche, might well have become one.
The Three Farm Workers, 1835, Charles Gleyre, a watercolor from his middle-eastern trip.
Born in 1806 and orphaned at the age on nine, Charles Gleyre was raised in Lyon by an uncle. He began studying painting intensely as a teenager before taking off on something of a "field trip" of his own to Italy for a time, then for six more years wandering about Greece, Nubia, Syria, and Egypt, applying his skills and brushing up on the exotic middle-eastern culture. His time abroad was cut short by an eye infection garnered in Egypt and a persistent fever he picked up in Lebanon, forcing him to return home to recover. Six months later he moved to Paris and set up his own small studio where he began working out ideas which had been formulating in his mind during his illness. In 1840 he sent his Apocalyptic Vision of St John to the Paris Salon, which first brought him to prominence, followed in 1843 by Evening (top, later renamed Lost Illusions) It won him a second class medal. In the years to come, Gleyre occasionally entered the Salon competition, but refused to indulge in the popularity rat race that was the mainstay of the Paris art world at the time. His The Departure of the Apostles to Preach the Gospel (below), from 1845, was one of his few Salon entries following his "retirement."
Departure of the Apostles to Preach the Gospel, 1845, Charles Gleyre
Daphne and Cloe Returning
from the Mountains, 1850,
Charles Gleyre
Gleyre's Lost Illusions has taken its place as his masterpiece. He claimed it represented a vision he had once experienced while sitting on the banks of the Nile while in Egypt. The painting depicts an aging poet watching pensively as a mysterious boat carries away his youthful dreams and illusions, personified by music-making maidens and a cupid strewing flowers. Although the figures in the painting wear classical Greek attire, their vessel resembles a dahabiyeh, an Egyptian river boat. Interestingly enough, one of his students, Léon Dussart, later began a copy of Lost Illusions (bottom), which Gleyre later finished over the course of two years for the wealthy American art collector, William T. Walters. It's interesting to compare the two versions, separated by some twenty years. Although there are a few portraits in amongst Gleyre's work, his paintings, taken as a whole, would be best categorized as Romantic Classicism. Intermixed with the mythological are religious works with a generous seasoning of refined eroticism (left). Gleyre died suddenly in 1874 at the age of 68, leaving behind several unfinished works, not surprising in that, ever the perfectionist, he often painted intermittently on the same painting for several years. Today, we would consider Gleyre something of a "laid back" aesthetic nerd, certainly not the ideal painting instructor for the likes, of Monet, Sisley, Bazille or Renoir.

Lost Illusions, 1865 version, Charles Gleyre

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