“Imagine the most delicious symphony of clear and pretty colors,” wrote A. Pélérin in Le Magasin Picturesque of 1890 (pg. 65), describing the work of Charles Chaplin. Though working during a period in France when younger artists sought to challenge traditions, he remained indebted to the eighteenth century tradition of the beautiful women in the boudoir, such as that of François Boucher and Antoine Watteau. Chaplin became a sought after artist through his elegant representations and reliance on past styles which were making a comeback during the Second Empire and the Third Republic. In fact, Chaplin can be considered as helping the revival of interest in the eighteenth century, a tradition spearheaded by the writings and theories of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, among others.
Charles Chaplin was born to an English father and French mother on June 8th, 1825 in Audelys, in the Eure region. While he retained his British citizenship up until five years before his death, it was clear where his allegiance lay when he wrote “I am French, all French (although English)” (quoted in Valerie E. Morant’s Oct. 1989 article in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts entitled “Charles-Joshue Chaplin, An Anglo-French Artist, 1825-1891”, pg. 144). He began attending school at the Lisieux College where his teacher, also the curator of a local museum, noticed his artistic flair. To nurture this talent, his mother took Charles to Paris and enrolled him in the atelier of Michel-Martin Drolling, a painter who studied under Jacques-Louis David, where he spent four years. At the young age of eighteen he was accepted at the École des Beaux-Arts where he was able to continue further artistic study.
His early work focused on portraits and landscapes, many from the Auvergne region where the traditional way of peasant life remained. Depicting the daily life of the peasantry was a common subject of the period and is found in other works by artists such as Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton. Beyond his work as a painter, these early years also showed Chaplin working in watercolors and lithography (see Janine Bailly-Herzberg’s Dictionnaire de l’Estampe en France- 1830-1950. Paris: Flammarion, 1985, pg. 65). His earliest watercolors date to 1848 with Saint Sebastian (after his painting shown at the Salon of 1847), La Tricoteuse (The Knitter), and a four piece ensemble of La Fileuse (The Spinner), where each woman is shown in a different environment possibly in symbolic accordance with the times of the year. He also completed engravings and lithographs after well-known works by Alexandre Decamps, Edmond Hédouin, Antoine Watteau, and Eugène Delacroix. These early works show Chaplin experimenting with Realism, free from the idealization and frivolity that would characterize his later works.
His landscape and peasant scenes did not occupy Chaplin for long and he soon turned towards portraiture and the representation of the élégante, perhaps most likely to capitalize on the growing market during the Second Empire for these self-glorifying and escapist types. He debuted at the Salon in 1845 with Portrait de Femme (Portrait of a Woman) and also showed several portraits at the 1847 Salon, exhibiting portraits of Mme C…., M. Ernest P…., M. Georges de S… (no other information is provided about the sitters), as well as his Saint Sébastien Percé de Flèches (Saint Sebastian Pierced by Arrows). With the portrait of his sister submitted in 1851, for which he received a third-class medal, Chaplin made a distinctive break from his earlier work. This updated sty le was clearly being recog nized favorably by critics and his status increased the following year after having earned a second-class medal. As he expanded on this new subject matter he began to integrate mythological scenes into his work, as evidenced by a number of works he exhibited at the Salon such as Diane (Diana-1859), Diane Endormie (Diana Sleeping-1863), and La Naissance de Venus (The Birth of Venus-1867 Exposition Universelle), among others. His success continued to grow and, in 1865, he was honored with the title of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
His interests shifted more and more towards the depiction of beautiful women, the subject for which the artist is best remembered. His contemporary, Charles Baudelaire, in his Curiosités Esthétiques (quoted from the translated edition Art in Paris: 1845-1862. London: Phaidon Press, 1965, pg. 179), wrote about the precedents of Chaplin’s art:
It was a period of such beauty and fruitfulness that not one spiritual need was forgotten by its artists. While Eugène Delacroix and Devéria were creating a great and picturesque art, others, witty and noble within a little sphere-painter of the boudoir and of a lighter kind of beauty-were adding incessantly to the present day album of ideal elegance. This renaissance was great in everything, from the heroic down to the vignette. On the robuster scale of today, M. Chaplin, who is moreover an excellent painter, sometimes continues this cult of the pretty, though he does it with a touch of heaviness; his work smacks less of the world, and a little more of the studio.
Chaplin’s work was praised in several journals. He had clearly departed from the Realist tendency he showed early on in his career, though Chaplin should not be considered a Realist by choice, as he wrote:
“In our own time, where Realism and photography have invaded…why can’t our contemporaries take account of grace and elegance instead of the ugly and the vulgar? If I would, I would lose myself in the past. I have a particular love for the charming French School of the last century.” (Morant, pg. 146)
His appreciation and ability to portray the “grace and elegance” that he so admired made him highly sought after for portraiture. Valerie Morant notes that “Financially such a style of painting brought great rewards, opening the way to highly paid commissions to depict the wives and daughters of the growing army of the newly-rich and ennobled bourgeoisie” (p. 146). From the beginning of his career Chaplin completed several commissioned portraits and these form a large portion of his Salon exhibitions especially during his early to mid-career. In La Nouvelle Revue of 1891, Frédéric Lolière wrote that his portraits and pictures of women:
… captivate you, they seduce you. One is taken without possible resistance by the magical virtuosity of this brush, which, under an obvious abandon, discovers a profound science of form and of light. In a feeling of very personal elegance and feeling… Chaplin has renewed, but with less artifice, the delicacies of our Boucher…It’s the same brilliant touch; it’s the same spirit and the same smile. He excels, like his fecund precursor, at the skies of Olympia, at the radiant Venus, at the portraits of women always lit up with charming colors, always idealized in a décor of mythological allegory and rose clouds.
Chaplin had also begun working in decorative painting and gained several important commissions during his career. He was first commissioned by Hector Lefuel, architect of the Empress Eugénie, to decorate the “Salon de Fleurs” at the Palais des Tuileries and in 1862 the Empress called on him directly to paint her bathroom with mythological scenes. He also became widely known for his ceiling decorations, designs of which were first shown at the 1859 Salon. The Russian Prince Demidoff commissioned decorative works for his residence and Madame Musard, who worked the fashionable and popular Salon Hôtel Musard, also desired a work that revealed Chaplin’s decorative abilities. He was also asked to contribute a work for the Théâtre Français, to which he sent a portrait of Mademoiselle de Seyne, an actress. Each of these commissions shows that his style was popular with the upper echelons of French political and social society.
After fully establishing his career and popularity, Chaplin opened up his own atelier where he took the unusual step of accepting only female students, as it was rare for women to be allowed to paint at all. One of his most famous students was Mary Cassatt, an American impressionist painter, and Henriette Browne (actually Sophie Desaux) who exhibited at many Salons alongside Chaplin, and who became one of the best genre and still life painters of her generation. On April 9th, 1881, Chaplin was elected by the Académie des Beaux-Arts to replace M. Gatteaux, who had recently passed away, in the engraving section. This honor, albeit for engraving, demonstrated that many officials during the Third Republic highly valued Chaplin’s graphic art … much of which was reproduced in journals of the time.
His health began to decline during the 1880s but he continued painting until his final Salon showing in 1890. He died in Paris on January 20th, 1891. Chaplin’s work typified a style of painting that was highly regarded by aristocrats and royalty in France because of its associations with the work of the genteel eighteenth century. Though he worked in several media and attempted a less idealized style in his early career, he found a niche with portraiture and the depiction of femininity. This achievement needs to be viewed outside many of the better-known artistic currents of nineteenth century France which have had a tendency to hide the importance of a painter trying to create images of elegance while appealing to the tastes of high society.