Too Easily Influenced

By Gayford, Martin | The Spectator, March 9, 2002 | Go to article overview

Too Easily Influenced


Gayford, Martin, The Spectator


Exhibitions 1

Theodore Chasseriau (1819-1856)

(Grand Palais, Paris, till 27 May)

Charles Baudelaire, in addition, of course, to being a great poet, was no mean art critic. Writing in 1846 about the annual Parisian exhibition known as the Salon, he had this to say of a young painter called Theodore Chasseriau. `The position that he wants to create for himself between Ingres, whose pupil he is, and Delacroix, whom he is seeking to pilfer, creates a feeling of equivocation in the public mind, and is embarrassing for him personally.'

Stern words, and evidence that critics have become if anything less rude as the years have gone by. And contemplating the major retrospective of Chasseriau's work that has just opened in Paris at the Grand Palais, one has to admit that Baudelaire had a point. The strange and troubling thing about Chasseriau is that some of his work looks very much like Ingres and other parts look very much like Delacroix. But when he escaped from those magnetic and dangerous influences - in between, so to speak - he was one of the most distinctive secondary figures in 19th-century French painting.

That he is also one of the least known in this country at least - is partly due to bad luck of one kind or another, some of it posthumous. Born in distant Santo Domingo, his father French and his mother Creole - that is, from a family of settlers he must have been extremely precocious. He became a pupil of Ingres at the age of 12, and at 16 produced an accomplished, if strongly Ingres-like self-portrait, showing that the teenage Chasseriau was already an artist and a dandy. He was still only 27 when Baudelaire wrote about his work at the Salon, and he had only another ten years to live.

A good deal of the work that he produced in his short career took the form of large murals in various public buildings, mainly in Paris. The most important of these were on the grand staircase of the Cour des Comptes, a building which was torched during the Paris Commune, causing grave damage to Chasseriau's paintings. From the weather-worn vestiges on show in the exhibition, they weren't much of a loss.

Delacroix was the only 19th-century artist to have brought this sort of thing off and, so far at least, the last in the history of art (his masterpieces in that regard are hidden away in the library of the Palais Bourbon, the French national assembly, where almost no one ever sees them). Chasseriau's talents, to judge from this exhibition, were the opposite of Delacroix's. The latter - wonderful as his small pictures can be - gains in power as the scale of his works goes up. Chasseriau only really succeeded in small paintings and portraits, and for reasons that Baudelaire put his finger on a century and a half ago.

Chasseriau's painting in the Salon of 1846 was the best of his large-scale works, a portrait of Ali-Ben-Hamet, an Algerian ruler who had recently become a client of the French state. It is a splendid performance in its way, the Kalif drawing up on a snorting horse, Legion d'honneur displayed prominently on his robes, surrounded by spear-carrying followers. But, as Baudelaire pointed out, it isn't quite consistent. In parts, what we see is `coloured drawing'.

That - looking like coloured drawing rather than proper painting - is one of the reasons why almost all 19th-century murals fail. …

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