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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Theodore Chasseriau

He Comes Down from Cross, Theodore Chasseriau,
Philippe du Roule Church, one of the artist's last paintings.
It probably doesn't happen so much today as it once did, but a few art schools do still actually "fight" one another to attract outstanding young students to their doors. Today we've institutionalized this struggle with scholarships and it's not so much an overt battle in which a student is caught in the middle between two opposing schools (except in the realm of sports scholarships). Likewise we don't see major art schools today erecting stiff exams involving entry portfolios and actual drawing tests so much as was the case a couple hundred years ago. Today, if you can afford the exorbitant tuition, it's "welcome to your future alma mater." Once designed to keep out the "riff raff" trouble makers, art schools today have long since realized it is precisely this type of students who, in questioning tradition and possibly "shaking thing up" a bit, eventually go on to become major forces of nature in an art world fervidly in search of he "next big thing."
Two self-portraits, two great artists, two opposing styles.
In Paris' Ecole des Beaux Arts during the first half of the 19th-century there were two such "forces of nature" battling one another, though in this case they weren't students but faculty members--Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (pronounced, "Ang") and Eugene Delacroix (pronounced Del-a-qua). Although they were both steeped in the Academic traditions of the all-powerful governmental school of art, they might as well have been two separate schools, so diametrically opposite were they in their painting styles and philosophies. And, they each attracted, and sometimes fought over, a bevy of followers who delighted in their differences. One of these students was a little eleven-year-old boy named Theodore Chasseriau.
The child prodigy student caught in the middle.
Little Theodore was the son of a French colonial government official and his wife, the daughter of a wealthy Haitian plantation owner (both French colonies in the Caribbean at the time). Amid the history of art, it's rather meaningless to talk about child prodigies in that there were so many of them, and so many of the major names we know today could easily fit such a designation. But young Theodore Chasseriau, even as a very young child, showed remarkable aptitude for pencil drawing (pencils were quite new back then). Born in what is now the Dominican Republic in 1819, by the time his parents returned to Paris in 1830, Theodore's talent was such that even, as a preadolescent schoolboy, he easily gained entrance into the Ecole des Beaux Arts, thus being injected into the tempestuous Ingres-Delacroix tug-of-war. And, not surprisingly, being a drawing prodigy, he was immediately captured by the classical "line over color" influence of the Ingres "school."
The Two Sisters, 1843,
Theodore Chasseriau, the artist's
two sisters painted in the
manner of Ingres.
Ingres took a liking to the child, declaring him his "favorite pupil," and the future "Napoleon of Painting." Four years later, when Ingres went off to Rome to head the French Academy there, young Theodore, still in his mid-teens, fell under the influence of the rival forces of Eugene Delacroix, who was an avid colorist of the Romantic style of painting. It's hard to say which man had the greater influence over the budding young artist, but suffice to say Delacroix quickly turned Ingres' favorite draughtsman/boy into a dramatic Ro-manticist. Chassériau's work has sometimes been characterized as an attempt to re-concile the classicism of Ingres with the romanticism of Delacroix. In any case, when the young artist first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1836 (at the age of seventeen), he and was awarded a third-place medal in the category of history painting. By the time Chasseriau travelled to Rome in 1840 as a young man, and was reunited with his former instructor, Ingres did not like what he saw. His bitterness at the direction his former student's work had taking led to a decisive break.

Punishment Of Cain, Theodore Chasseriau
The Toilet of Esther, 1841,
Theodore Chasseriau
Among the chief works of his early maturity are Punishment Of Cain (above), and The Toilette of Esther (left), likely his most famous work, which dates from 1841. Both reveal a very personal ideal in depicting the female nude. Chas-sériau's major religious paintings from these years, Christ on the Mount of Olives (a subject he treated in 1840 and again in 1844) and The Adoration of the Holy Three Kings (below, right), received mixed reviews from the critics.

The Adoration of the Holy
Three Kings,
TTheodore Chasseriau

Two Young Constantine
Jewesses Rocking a Child,
Theodore Chasseriau
In 1846 Chasseriau made his first trip to Algeria. From sketches made on this and subsequent trips he painted such subjects as Two Young Constantine Jewesses Rocking a Child (left) and Head of a young Algerian Jew (bottom). A major late work, The Tepidarium (below) from 1853, depicts a large group of women drying themselves after bathing, in an architectural setting inspired by the artist's trip in 1840 to Pompeii. Chassériau's most monumental work was his decoration of the grand staircase of the Cour des Comptes, begun in 1844 and completed in 1848. This work was heavily damaged in May, 1871, by a fire set during the Commune era. Only fragments could be recovered, which are now preserved in the Louvre.

The Tepidarium, 1853, Theodore Chasseriau
After a period of ill health, exacerbated by his exhausting work on commissions for murals to decorate the Churches of Saint-Roch and Saint-Philippe-du-Roule (top), Theodore Chasseriau died in Paris in 1856 at the age of thirty-seven. Even a prodigy has to pace himself.

Study of a Negro, 1838, Theodore Chasseriau

Head of a young Algerian Jew,
Theodore Chasseriau


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