Romantic Chassériau, A Secondary Painter In Huge Exhibition

The 19th-century French painter Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856), whose work is currently the subject of a very large exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had every reason to believe that he was destined to become one of the greatest artists of his time. At the remarkable age of 12, he was allowed to become a student of Ingres, the presiding genius of the Neo-Classical school. At 16, a painting of his was accepted by the Paris Salon and won him a medal. No less a figure than Théophile Gautier, the celebrated poet who was also a high-profile critic of the period, lavished Chassériau’s work with praise, and influential hostesses welcomed him to their private salons-another measure of the distinction he achieved at an early age.

But despite the driving ambition and versatile gifts that Chassériau brought to his vocation, he remained a secondary talent throughout his short, meteoric career. Although always eager to please, he was at every turn a follower of talents greater than his own. At the outset, he was never as great as Ingres, his first mentor, and when he switched his allegiance to the Romantic school of Delacroix, he was never the equal of that master, either. He tried everything that was expected of a great painter in his day-an abundance of glamorous portrait paintings and drawings, large-scale ecclesiastic commissions, Orientalist exotica derived from his travels in North Africa and ill-fated attempts at history painting-yet in almost nothing that his facile talents produced at breakneck speed did Chassériau achieve the greatness he aspired to. He remains today an interesting but overextended talent of the second rank.

To devote a major retrospective and a weighty, scrupulously documented catalog to a secondary talent of this sort is a risky undertaking-on this side of the Atlantic, anyway. In France, where the exhibition has already been seen at the Grand Palais in Paris and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Strasbourg, it was bound to enjoy a warmer-or at least more curious-welcome. After all, the French national museums are crowded with paintings that make a greater claim on our interest in French history than on our response to aesthetic distinction. The Musée d’Orsay, which is now the principal repository of 19th-century French painting in Paris, seems to have been expressly organized to deny or occlude such distinctions of quality.

In this country, however, with recent exhibitions devoted to the works of both Ingres and Delacroix still fresh in our memories, Chassériau was certain to meet with a more equivocal or frankly disappointed response. There are more than 140 works in the Met’s retrospective, which is far too many for a talent of his rank. After the initial onslaught of Ingresque imitations, we are treated to a protracted reprise of Delacroixian effects. Too often, we search in vain for some characteristic utterance, some sign of individual vision.

This is not to say that there’s nothing of interest in the exhibition. At least one of the early portraits- The Reverend Father Dominique Lacordaire (1840), painted when Chassériau was a mere 21-is a knockout, one of the very few in this overcrowded survey. The intensity of the subject’s gaze in this portrait, made all the more intense by the austerity of its almost colorless palette, is indeed masterly. And it’s certainly interesting to discover that the painting was highly controversial in its day-partly for religious reasons.

“One could not imagine anything more untamed, more Lutheran, than the look of that portrait” was the judgment of one of Chassériau’s Catholic critics. Another critic worried about the austerity of the painter’s subdued palette, writing: “The hue is a bit gray, a bit livid in the flesh tones, but that somber pallor is quite suitable to men who serve as examples to the world for every sort of abstinence and mortification …. I laud M. Chassériau very much for the purity of his line and his disdain for the deceptive brilliance of color: I do not blame him for his fondness for melancholic painting, but I fear that he will get carried away by this inclination, and that he will become accustomed to casting the lividity of death into living flesh.”

This critic’s worries were misplaced: When Chassériau embraced the coloristic manner of Delacroix, he went whole hog, so to speak. Even the corpse in a painting like Arab Tribal Chiefs Challenging Each Other in Single Combat (1852) retains a healthy complexion, and in the painting of female flesh and its colorful adornments, Chassériau often carried “the deceptive brilliance of color” into a realm bordering on vulgarity. In whatever style he adopted, Chassériau was unstinting in conforming to its orthodoxies. What he lacked was some core belief in his own sensibility.

There was, however, one project to which he seems to have brought a distinctly personal passion, and that was in the drawings and etchings he devoted to scenes from Shakespearean drama. Especially in the drawings of scenes from Othello , we are made to feel a depth of emotion that’s generally absent elsewhere in Chassériau’s oeuvre . Did his own mixed-race origins incline Chassériau to some personal identification with the character of Othello? Perhaps. His mother was the daughter of a Creole landowner from Saint Domingue, and Chassériau is said to have been sensitive about his racial origins and skin color. Whatever the reason, it’s only in the Othello drawings that he seems to speak to us in his own voice.

Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856): The Unknown Romantic remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 5, 2003.

Romantic Chassériau, A Secondary Painter In Huge Exhibition