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Monday, December 4, 2017

Charles Verlat

Buffalo Surprised by a Tiger, 1853, Charles Verlat
In many cases, the only difference between a famous painter serving as a bookmark in the tomes of art history and those who are little more than footnotes, is not the qualities of their work, but the peculiarities of their lives. Vincent van Gogh, for instance, died virtually unknown. Despite the prices paid for them at auction today, most of his paintings display the struggles of a virtually untrained artist trying desperately to teach himself to paint. Although he had some formal training at various periods in his early life, for the most part we might term him "The King of the Self-taught Artists." This allows for the argument as to whether he succeeded because he was an apt pupil or an inspiring teacher...or both. In any case, his struggle for self-fulfillment was the stuff from which legends are made. After his death, van Gogh's family made the most of those struggles, publicizing them, and eventually reaped the rewards in doing so.
Academically trained with a polished style and technique, Charles Verlat was a competent, but in no way outstanding painter.
In contrast to van Gogh we have the Belgian painter, Michel Marie Charles Verlat. Born in 1824, he was roughly a generation older than van Gogh (born in 1853). Charles Verlat spent his early years in Antwerp. He was a pupil of Nicaise de Keyser, and studied at the Antwerp Academy. About 1849 he went to Paris, where he worked under Ary Scheffer. In 1855 he won a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle at Paris with his Tiger Attacking a Herd of Buffaloes (similar to the painting, at the top). In 1866 he was appointed director of the Academy at Weimar, where he painted some of his finest portraits, notably those of the grand-duchess of Saxony and of the musician Liszt.
Bull Defending himself Against Wolves, Charles Verlat
Young Girl of Bethlehem,
1875, Charles Verlat
Soon after his return to Antwerp in 1875 he visited Palestine, and brought back a large number of interesting pictures, including Vox Populi, The Tomb of Jesus, and The Flight into Egypt. In 1885 Verlat was appointed director of the Antwerp Academy. Other important works by Verlat are the panoramas of The Battle of Waterloo and The Treaty of San Stefano, Christ between the Two Thieves, Bull Defending himself Against the Wolves (above), Oxen Ploughing in Palestine, Godfrey of Bouillon at the Siege of Jerusalem, and Sheep-Dog De-fending the Flock. He executed a series of orig-inal etchings, published in a book in 1879. Charles Verlat died at Antwerp in 1890 at the age of sixty-six.
Today, Charles Verlat may be best remembered for his "monkey paintings."
Bebe, Charles Verlat
By all standards of the late 19th-Century, Charles Verlat was a suc-cessful artist--far more so that van Gogh, in fact, during his own lifetime, at least. So why does van Gogh's work, if you can find one for sale, burn up the boards at Christie's and Sotheby's while Verlat's massive history paintings hang virtually ignored and forgotten on mus-eum walls, or worse, gathering dust in their basement vaults? Part of the reason is, of course, that history painting has been supplanted by other, more vi-able art media. But the major difference lies in the artists' persona. Van Gogh's life and death were tragic, while Verlat, well trained, respected, well traveled, led a relatively long, very average, com-fortable life, having reach-ed the top of his profession (more or less) teaching, painting portraits, and painting history, none of which bears much similarity to the work of Vincent van Gogh.

Mare and Foal, 1845, Charles Verlat.
Verlat lived a relatively boring life painting equally boring paintings, except perhaps, for his silly monkeys (a gimmicky content fascination which makes it still more difficult to take the man seriously as an artist). Van Gogh never painted a monkey during his entire career. And, as a result of his refusal to bend to public tastes, lived from hand-to-mouth most of his adult life supported by his long-suffering brother, Theo. Van Gogh is endlessly enigmatic, yet at the same time, thanks to his letters to Theo, virtually an open book. A struggle to maintain one's sanity in the midst of acute loneliness while at the same time surviving on a tight budget lifts Vincent to the level of enduring fascination few other artists have ever attained. And that is why his work has become as legendary as the life he lived.

Diptych, Charles Verlat
Portrait of Fido, Charles Verlat


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