Oil on canvas.
40.4 x 32.5cms. (15 ⅞ x 12 ¾ in.)
PROVENANCE: Collection Carré Soubiran, in 1893 (according to Chevillard); M.G. de Barbarin (according to Bénédite’s catalogue raisonné).
LITERATURE: Valbert Chevillard, Un peintre romantique, Théodore Chassériau, Paris 1893, no.100, p.282; Léonce Bénédite, Théodore Chassériau, sa vie et son œuvre, published after the author’s death, Paris 1931, p.338, illus.; Marc Sandoz, Théodore Chassériau 1819-1856, Catalogue raisonné des peintures et estampes, Paris 1974, cat.114, p.248, fig.CV, p.249.
Théodore Chassériau was born in Santo Domingo, (now the Dominican Republic), to a créole mother and a French father, secretary general of the colony, an adventurer and later diplomat, who had begun his career following the French army during the Eygptian campaign1. In the monographic exhibition catalogue of 2002 Théodore Chassériau, The Unknown Romantic, the character of the Chassériau family is described: a dynasty originally from La Rochelle, many members of which married women ‘from the islands’, audacious and peripatetic, with a ‘powerful genetic predisposition’ to the sea and distant lands’2. The family moved back to France in 1821 and settled in Paris although Benoit, the father (who described himself as having ‘a strong soul, a resolute character, a love of beauty and […] a degree of selflessness’ continued to travel and was absent for extended periods3. The young Théodore, brought up with four brothers and sisters to whom he remained very close, was of fragile health and with a sensitive temperament but nevertheless displayed a precocious artistic talent. Thanks to his elder brother Frédéric, head of the family in the absence of his father, who rescued the family from their disastrous financial situation, and through the mediation of a distant cousin, the artist d’Amaury-Duval (1808-1885), Théodore entered the studio of Ingres in September 1830, at the age of eleven. The master painter made much of his young pupil, understood his exceptional talent and took the trouble three years later to have him admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts. When he was appointed director of the French Academy in Rome in 1834, Ingres wished his pupil to accompany him but the financial situation of the family did not allow for this. Confident in his work and having been introduced into Parisian artistic circles, Chassériau was at this point already independent of his master, making his debut at the Salon of 1836. The break with Ingres became definitive some years later when the two met in Rome in 1840. Chassériau, then aged 21, wrote to his brother Frédéric: ‘he [Ingres] has lived his best years and has no understanding of the new ideas and changes that have occurred in the arts of our time; he is in complete ignorance of our contemporary poets’4.
Chassériau’s involvement with the works of the Romantic artists, poets, critics and painters such as Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier and Henri Lehman, contributed to distance him from Classicism. Even at the height of his career, sadly cut short by his premature death at the age of 37, Chassériau was described as occupying the position of the happy medium between the graphic nobility of Ingres and the colour and liquidity of Delacroix. The curators of the 2002 monographic exhibition underline how much Chassériau’s reputation suffered by comparison with these two super dominant figures of the 19th century, but offer a new overview of the man and of his work which ‘slowly penetrates the soul before becoming haunting and indispensable’ and which so powerfully influenced Puvis de Chavanne, Gustave Moreau and Maurice Denis5. Ingres is of course credited with forging Chassériau’s exceptional draughtsmanship and as being his conductor for the glories of Antiquity and the Renaissance but it was also Ingres who taught him the subtleties of oil painting and Chassériau is now considered one of the great practitioners of his time.
Amongst his first successes were the two accepted entries to the Salon of 1839, the Venus Anadoymène (Musée du Louvre) a small and exquisitely sensual oil and the Susannah and the Elders, an enormous canvas, Venetian in its influences but again showing a particularly refined depiction of the female nude, both subtle and voluptuous (both paintings are now in the Musée du Louvre). During the summer of 1840, Chassériau travelled to Italy for the first time and remained there for seven months. He stayed first in Naples and drew in the surrounding countryside, before moving with some wariness to Rome: ‘where the sublime artifacts are in greater number, like a city in which one must think deeply, but one which also feels like a tomb […] it is not in Rome that one can see real life’6. His stay was punctuated by the breakup with Ingres and the execution of the Portrait of Lacordaire (Musée du Louvre). Back in Paris, the artist dedicated himself to portraiture, historical subjects and in a new departure, to decorative painting which remains his greatest achievement.
In 1844, Chassériau received the commission from the State to decorate the escalier d’honneur of the Cour des Comptes at the Palais d’Orsay. The construction of the building was begun under Napoleon I as the home of the Conseil d’Etat and it stood on the site of the current Musée d’Orsay. It was a huge project for the young artist, which extended to 270 square metres and now survives only in a few sections preserved in the Louvre. The complete cycle, made up of allegories of War, Power, Order and Peace, themes chosen by Chassériau himself, illustrated the concept of fraternity amongst the peoples. This colossal and solitary work was executed by Chassériau using the help of assistants only for grinding the colours, and fully occupied him for four years, interrupted briefly in 1846 for a two month visit to Algeria, a revelatory journey during which he painted intensively. Just like Delacroix before him, Chassériau was profoundly affected by the aesthetics of North Africa, under the influence of which, back in Paris, he finished the paintings for the Cour des Comptes.
Inaugurated in 1848 but receiving little notice due to the turbulent political period following the fall of Louis-Philippe and the advent of the Second Republic, this immense decoration, one of the most important of the 19th century, was almost entirely destroyed twenty-three years later during the Paris Commune. This insurrection, a reaction to the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, was crushed after two months of civil war. On 23 May 1871, in the middle of the ‘Semaine sanglante’ (bloody week) which saw their defeat, the partisans of the Commune set fire to official buildings which symbolised power, such as the Palais des Tuileries, the Hôtel de Ville, the Palais de Justice and the Palais d’Orsay, which housed the Cour des Comptes and the Conseil d’Etat. The rabble covered the walls with fuel and set them on fire, provoking a huge blaze in which most of Chassériau’s work was destroyed. The vestiges remained in the open air, amongst the ruins, continuing to disintegrate for 27 years until the Comité Chassériau finally obtained their removal in 1898 and then gave them in 1903 to the Louvre, where some fragments suffered further during the floods of 1910. The restoration campaign carried out on the occasion of the 2002 exhibition has however allowed the rediscovery of ‘these superb fragments of pure painting’7.
Published in the catalogue raisonné by Marc Sandoz, who dates it to the beginning of 1848, the present sketch is a study with some differences for the two female figures, their hands bound, which form part of a group of captives being led by the victorious soldiers in the central part of the Retour de la Guerre, a large composition which measured 6 metres by 8. Of exceptional quality, the present sketch perfectly summarises the artistic greatness of Chassériau, his vivid and pictorial style, his high aestheticism, marked by the influence of North Africa and his sensitivity as a painter of nudes. The power of the group and its sensuality, imagined on the scale of the final work, also illustrates his genius as a decorator. Known only from a blurred photograph (fig.1)8, this detail of the decoration struck Théophile Gautier who describes it in the article written on the occasion of his first visit to the Cour des Comptes: ‘Two women, the first one dark skinned and lit as if gilded by a sunray, her black hair plaited and tied with pearls, revealing her warm shoulders and her lower back over which slips a sky-blue drapery; the second, white, slender, falling backwards in a painful movement and trying to lift her delicate hands weighed down with chains, compose, with an old man dragged by a foot soldier dressed in armour, a strikingly pathetic and picturesque group. The naked backs of the women are painted in rich impasto, smooth and of a tone which would provoke envy in the proudest colourist’9.
In discussing this group, Sandoz sees the influence of the Italian masters and the echoes of Delacroix’s Sardanapalus of 1827. In effect, the style of the present sketch is particularly free and shows a great sense of observation in the torsion of the two backs, the fall of the drapery, the highlight of a gold earring and the tilt of the heads. Unique amongst the known preparatory works for the decoration of the Cour des Comptes, this sketch, in its handling and its quality, is a surprising rarity in the oeuvre of an artist as prolific as Chassériau10.
The rediscovery of this superb sketch for Chassériau’s most important decorative scheme is of great importance in the continuing re-evaluation of his career and of the position he occupies in the history of 19th century French painting.
1. Exhibition catalogue, Chassériau: un autre romantisme, or Théodore Chassériau, The Unknown Romantic, Stéphane Guégan, Vincent Pomarède and Louis-Antoine Prat, Paris, Strasbourg and New York, 2002-3.
2. See exhib. cat., op. cit., pp. 56-57.
3. See exhib. cat., op. cit., pp.59 and 61.
4. See exhib. cat., op. cit., p. 20.
5. See exhib. cat., op. cit., p.61.
6. See Catalogue raisonné.., op. cit., pp.226-7.
7. See exhibition catalogue, Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856), The Unknown Romantic, exhibition catalogue, Paris, Strasbourg and New York, 2002, p.214.
8. See exhibition catalogue, op. cit., p.217 (Vincent Pomarède)
9. See Catalogue raisonné, p.232, under Le Retour de la Guerre.
10. Another notable example is the sketch for the Venus Anadyomene which was in the painter’s studio until his death and was included in the 2002 exhibition (cat. no.14).