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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Georges Croegaert

The Model, Georges Croegaert
Georges Croegaert, ca. 1885
In writing about art for as many years as I have, I sometimes delude myself into thinking "I've seen everything now." I haven't, of course, and every once in a while, that fact is brought home to me when I come upon a painting such as Georges Croegaert's The Model (above). Whoa, a Cardinal and a naked woman? The alternate title is The Cardinal Approves the Painter's Model. Well...that removes, perhaps, some possibilities, but in no way makes the painting any less shocking. It only raises the question as to why the Cardinal might be approving the painter's model. In other paintings by the same artist, we see the Cardinal himself at his easel painting (below, left), though the model is nowhere in sight, then in a third vignette (below, right), the cardinal is studying quite raptly the results of his work. The three paintings, taken together suggest that the Cardinal is either a very broad-minded former artist turned prelate, or that the aging codger is something of a "dirty old man."
Friday, Charles Edouard Delort
Training the Parrot, Marcel Brunery
The Diet, Andrea Landini
In pursuing Croegaert's work, I found that he was one of at least four painters from the second half of the 19th-century who did similar works, basically within the theme of "Cardinals are people too." The other label for such work is "anti-clerical painting." Other such artists so inclined to paint "red hats" included Andrea Landini (above, left), Jehan Georges Vibert (below), Charles Edouard Delort (above), and Marcel Brunery (above, right). Landini was Italian, Croegaert was Belgian, the rest were French. Except for Brunery, all were born within ten years of one another (1840s). Brunery was born in 1893. While they each had their strengths, to my eyes, Croegaert was the best of the lot. Most such works are more in the mildly humorous vein, no where near as shocking as Croegaert's duo. Nonetheless, such paintings were a velvet gloved attack upon the Catholic Church and the very human men who governed it as they invariably enjoyed the lap of luxury at their parishioner's expense.

A Fine Point, Jehan Georges Vibert
The Cardinal Studying his painting,
Georges Croegaert.
The Artist at Work,
Georges Croegaert
Georges Croegaert was born in 1848 in Antwerp where he later studied at the city's highly acclaimed art academy. Early in his career he painted still-lifes before moving on to portraits of ravishing young beauties lazing about in lavishly appointed interiors or grassy parks. While an ambitious young artist like Croegaert might get away with making a career of such art in Antwerp, when he moved to Paris in 1876, he joined literally thousands of excellent, academically-trained French artists doing work not unlike his own. Rather than compete in this overcrowded field, Croegaert, perhaps almost by accident, began painting clerics. One good portrait led to another, priests led to bishops, arch bishops, monsignors, and eventually Cardinals. France was (and is) a heavily Catholic country and at the time, had a heavily overblown priestly hierarchy, enjoying wealth and privilege which escalated considerably as one climbed the clerical ladder. They could well afford the services of a highly-paid portrait artist.

The Bird Feather,
Georges Croegaert
The Philatelist,
Georges Croegaert
However, as Croegaert painted more and more princes of the church, he also got a glimpse inside the cloistered world they inhabited. There were few monks in coarse, woolen habits or horse hair shirts. By the latter part of the 19th-century, these men of God lived in palaces, enjoyed the best food and drink there was available. They spent far more time pursuing hobbies, entertainment, and a rich, highly formal social life than preparing homilies, overseeing needs of parishioners, or caring for the poor and disabled. From all this, these few artists began a subtle form of religious protest. Rather than engaging in biblical study, prelates were portrayed indulging their passion for philately or participating in gambling, gluttony, smoking and drinking, not to mention the occasional fishing trip.

The Ball of String,
Georges Croegaert
The Parrot,
Georges Croegaert
A Quiet Smoke, Georges Croegaert
In effect, clerical portrait painters such as Croegaert were biting the hand that fed them. Therefore, this type of art, initially anyway, was a subtle, under the counter, though quite popular, sideline. Keep in mind, such paintings were seldom more than one or two square feet in size, yet extremely and exquisitely adorned with luxurious detail adding further contrast to the vow of poverty under which these Cardinals presumably lived. Not all were overtly hostile to the church or it's cardinal red Cardinals. Some we could only call charming, humorous, and humanizing in their loving warmth. Others, however, depicted these vaunted leaders as subject to the same human temptations, succumbing to the same sins as anyone else. Croegaert died in 1923. Whether any of his "protest paintings" had a lasting impact as they exposed the opulent lifestyles of the French clergy would be hard to say, and certainly an area well beyond my knowledge of church history.

The Winning Hand, Georges Croegaert


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