Tomorrow (20 September), we celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of the artist described by Ingres as the Napoleon of painting: Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856). In case you haven’t seen many of his works, or haven’t even heard of him, he has a whole room in the Louvre dedicated to his work, although he died when he had only just reached thirty-seven. His greatest legacy was his influence on Gustave Moreau and other major artists of the late nineteenth century.
This article, and its sequel tomorrow, I show a small selection of his paintings, in celebration of his brief but brilliant life.
Chassériau was born to a French adventurer in what is now the Dominican Republic, when it was first a French then a Spanish colony. His family moved to Paris when he was a young infant, and his precocious skill at drawing was recognised in his childhood. He started as a pupil in the studio of JAD Ingres in 1830, when he was only eleven years old. Ingres was struck by his talent, and at that time rated him as his most faithful follower.
But in 1834, Ingres was appointed as the Director of the French Academy in Rome, leaving Chassériau in Paris, to fall under the influence of Ingres’ rival Eugène Delacroix. Within two years, in 1836, Chassériau had his first work exhibited at the Salon, where he was promptly awarded a third-class medal. Chassériau travelled to Rome in 1840 to try to heal the rift with Ingres, to no avail.
Susanna at her Bath, or Susanna and the Elders, from 1839, is among Chassériau’s most important early paintings. It shows a scene from the Old Testament story of this pious woman who was watched when bathing in her garden, by two voyeuristic elders. They tried to blackmail her into committing adultery with them, threatening to report that she had met a young man with whom she was having an adulterous relationship. Susanna stood fast, and was tried and sentenced to death. The young Daniel intervened, showed that it was the elders who had lied, as result of which it was they who were executed, and virtue triumphed.
Chassériau shows the scene most popular with narrative painters, combining a delicate figure study of Susannah with a condemnatory interpretation of the voyeurs behind.
His watercolour of Sappho Leaping into the Sea from the Leucadian Promontory (c 1840) seems to have been his first painting of the motif which was to become an obsession later in the paintings of Gustave Moreau. Here the Greek poet clutches her lyre, with her arms braced across her chest, as she steps off the edge of the Leucadian Cliff.
Andromeda Chained to the Rock by the Nereids (1840) is an unusual depiction of the popular myth of Perseus and Andromeda. When Cetus, a sea monster, is devastating his kingdom, Andromeda’s father is advised to sacrifice her to appease Cetus. She is then chained to a rock by the Nereids to await her fate, as shown.
Cetus is just arriving at the left edge (which appears to have been cropped badly, I am afraid). Also cropped from the left edge is Andromeda’s saviour, Perseus, who has recently killed Medusa the Gorgon. Andromeda’s face shows her abject terror, as the Nereids make haste to secure her to the rock before Cetus reaches them.
When he was in Italy in 1840, trying to reconcile with Ingres, Chassériau visited the ruins of Pompeii, which had been extensively excavated since its rediscovery a century earlier.
Taken from another well known and often painted Old Testament story, The Toilet of Esther (1841) is less strongly narrative. It shows Esther, an orphan daughter of a Benjamite who had been living in exile in Persia. After becoming a member of King Ahasuerus’ harem, Esther dressed in her finest in order to successfully persuade the king to spare the life of her former guardian Mordecai, and to execute his anti-Semitic grand vizier Haman.
In addition to these superb narrative paintings, Chassériau proved a successful portraitist. His portrait of Comtesse de La Tour-Maubourg (Marie-Louise-Charlotte-Gabrielle Thomas de Pange, 1816–1850) in 1841 shows the wife of the French Ambassador to the Holy See in Rome. Chassériau started painting this when he was in Rome in 1840, posing his sitter in the garden of the French Embassy there. At the right edge are the domes of the churches in Trajan’s Forum and the Colosseum. Although they are bathed in the warm light of sunset, the sitter appears pale and cold by comparison.
Chassériau stylised his sitter’s appearance, elongating her head, and this was the subject of criticism when this painting was exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1841.
In 1844, Chassériau was commissioned to paint murals for the grand staircase of the Cour Des Comptes, the court of audit in Paris, which he completed in 1848. A monumental work, it was badly damaged when the building was set ablaze during the Paris Commune in May 1871 – an act of destruction which distressed Moreau. Recovered fragments of this are now preserved in the Louvre.
In 1846, Chassériau travelled to Algeria, where he spent much of his time in and around the city of Constantine, in the north-east of the country, making copious sketches and drawings. On his return, he then worked those up into finished oil paintings which are among some of the finest of the ‘orientalist’ works of the day.
This imposing equestrian portrait of The Caliph of Constantine Ali Ben Hamet, Chief of the Haractas, Followed by His Escort is stated as having been exhibited at the Salon in 1845, although it wasn’t until the following year that the artist arrived in Algeria.
He appears to have been particularly productive and successful in 1849, when he painted this quite sketchy portrait of two Moorish Dancers, much in the style of Delacroix.
That same year, his Woman and Little Girl of Constantine with a Gazelle is in similar style, and an unusual subject for Orientalism, with its customary fixation on partially clad subjugate young women.
He also painted another version of Sappho about to throw herself from the Leucadian cliff. I apologise for its poor image quality.
As with other narrative painters of the nineteenth century, Chassériau made several works showing scenes from popular plays, and in his case many of these were drawn from Shakespeare. His painting of Desdemona Retiring to her Bed from 1849 shows the female lead from Othello lost in thought as a maid prepares her for bed. He developed this from one of a series of eighteen engravings of scenes from that play which he had made in 1844.
All these paintings – and more – were completed before he turned thirty.