This blog provides reviews of art books, including recently published releases and old classics in the second hand bookstores. My aim is to help fellow art lovers build a collection of richly illustrated art books, with the help of discerning advice about the grandest visual treats and which books are mediocre. This blog mainly focuses on books about individual artists (old masters to modern). We can't all afford to collect original masterpieces, but we can all afford a good art book!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Theodore Chasseriau: The Unknown Romantic

Yale University Press’s monograph on artist Theodore Chasseriau is a tribute to one of the great French Romantic painters who has had little recognition in the chronicles of art history. The book is aptly titled “The Unknown Romantic”. I’ve chosen to highlight this book to fellow art lovers because it is packed richly with seductive works by an imaginative artist and because, after its initial release, the price of this book has come down to real bargain territory – an unfortunate sign that the publishers may not have completely succeeded in their objective of making this “unknown” better renowned.

As a boy prodigy of 11 years old Theodore Chasseriau was admitted as an apprentice to the studio of Jean Ingres, a giant of nineteenth century French painting. As a young man he enjoyed early successes and went on to a meteoric art career, before an early death at age 37. Chasseriau had artworks selected for the great French Salon exhibitions, he sojourned through Italy to study renaissance art and most importantly he travelled to Algiers, triggering a rich output of Orientalist works.

Chasseriau has been scornfully dismissed by French art critics as a precocious Creole (his grandmother was West Indian), while his style has been belittled for drifting between mimicry of his master Ingres (a photo realist of his day), towards resemblance to the art of Eugene Delacroix (a Romantic with a loose and fluid style). His hybrid style has made him a bit of a curious footnote in art history. After Chasseriau’s death, his output was widely scattered and in 1871 his most famous public commission was badly damaged by fires lit by members of the Paris Commune. One of his cousins was instrumental in collecting his works posthumously and donating them to the Louvre, an effort that made possible subsequent revival of interest in this artist. This volume helps rehabilitate Chasseriau’s name based on a complete picture of his output. The book helps reveal an artist with a strong theatrical imagination and a unique style that prefigured the sensual and dreamlike paintings of the Symbolist school which emerged a couple of decades after his passing.

Young Theodore’s penchant for drawing Oriental and Indian figures began at an early age, thanks to stories from a mostly absent father who engaged in all manner of adventures abroad (military, diplomatic, trading, spying and possibly embezzlement in between). And his move into an uncertain artist’s career was supported by his eldest brother who was left as head of the family. Recognising the boy’s talent, Ingres reputedly nicknamed him the “Napoleon of painting”. He drilled the lad in oil technique and fostered his knowledge of the progress of art: from Antiquity, to the Renaissance, to the Neo Classical movement. But a breach opened between the two after Ingres abandoned his pupil to live in Italy and as the boy began to socialise after hours with members of the Romantic school.

Chasseriau’s greatest success came in his mid 20s with a commission to paint 270 square metres of murals for the grand staircase leading to the Court of Audit in the Palais d’Orsay (later burnt down, and today reincarnated as art museum The Musee d’Orsay). Surviving and rehabilitated fragments of this monumental work are reproduced in this book, but I do not think these remnants are the real centrepiece of Chasseriau’s legacy. A more significant marker in his career was his stay in Algiers which unleashed experimentation with paintings of Eastern themes including Arabic battle scenes, Moorish dancers, Jewish families and fleshy harem beauties. These lively paintings are the real drawcard in this book.

Chasseriau’s exotic females were distinct: sensual, elongated and confident. One biographer wrote boldly that he “had the privilege of endowing the world of art with a female type whose physique and physiognomy had not existed before him.” His shimmering colours and stylised realism all attest to an artist that sought to put emotion into his work. In his words he strived to put “poetry in reality.”

The guts of this book is the catalogue of 256 paintings and sketches assembled for an exhibition at three venues, including in France and in New York. Each image is reproduced in colour and a small number are also supported by close-ups. Each artwork enjoys a short description, including interesting stories about some commissions, quotes from contemporary critics and background on the aristocratic sitters in the formal society portraits (a staple of the artist’s income in his early years). A strength of this book is its display of numerous compositional sketches, tonal drawings and colour roughs that were used to plan subsequent canvases. These help to show the artist’s working methods and are very attractive artworks in their own right. My one quibble is that some of the fine pencil sketches are printed too small to adequately bring up the detail.

Written and researched by a cavalcade of historians from art museums, this book sometimes lumbers under the weight of meandering history about the art circles and movements of the era. This is the heavy style of publisher Yale University Press, the pre-eminent organ of art history writing in the English speaking world. Fortunately in this book, the text does not cramp out the abundance of dazzling art. The book is also slightly larger than the regular Yale publication, a mark of quality that may have something to do with co-production with major French art institutions and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. The biographical chapters on Chasseriau are very readable, more so than the thematic essays that are inexplicitly jammed up front ahead of the visual and biographical survey.

This book does vindicate Chasseriau as an author of some stunning artworks. But it is also true that he shows the heavy imprint of influence by other masters (as argued by his critics). His portraits are alike Ingres’s portraits, including the preparatory pencil works. His later paintings do have the broad brushwork style of the melodramatic painter Delacroix and the comedic artist Daumier. But Chasseriau’s work is far less dark than either of these latter contemporaries. His uplifting compositions seek to find and extol the beauty in this world and in my view that is his unique contribution which marks his place in art history.

His murals for the Palais d’Orsay are said to have influenced the more famous muralist Puvis de Chavannes and, through him, he had an influence on the Symbolist movement. Chasseriau died of sickness and exhaustion from commissions to decorate two churches with murals. Had Chasseriau lived longer I believe he could have been to French art, what the prolific artist Tiepolo was to Italian mural art. I certainly see some stylistic similarities to Tiepolo which may hint at his true source of inspiration, perhaps a legacy of his travels in Italy?

It is hard for an artist to enter the pantheon of famous artists, without having good retrospective art books to their name, that bring their imagery together into one collection. This book does just that for Chasseriau, helping students of art history appreciate his achievements and what was distinctive in his art. But it will take wider and continuing recognition, for Chasseriau’s contribution to be better known. Disregarding the historical purpose of this book, it is also a great collectible for any admirer of Orientalist, Romantic or Symbolist art. This is artwork which commends itself to you on the strength of its beauty, not on a basis of a famous name.

Book specs:
Cloth bound hardcover, 432 pages, 12.3 x 9.5 inches, 326 illustrations (267 colour)

Recent books on some of Chasseriau's contemporaries:

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