Who Knew?

John Haber
in New York City

Théodore Chassériau: The Unknown Romantic

Could an all but forgotten artist, dead at thirty-seven, have forged both Romanticism and a half-century of boring, laughable, establishment painting? Not really, but simply to ask says plenty about the strange course of art and politics in France—and at museums today.

The Met calls Théodore Chassériau "the unknown Romantic," and one can see why. The young artist's portraits have an eerie presence, but of family and friends. He lost his bid for what could have become his greatest commissions. His few large murals either have met destruction or cannot travel to museum blockbusters. He died in 1856, just when Romanticism and its triumphs had become old news. Théodore Chassériau's Father Dominique Lacordaire (Musée du Louvre, 1840)

Théodore Géricault, who brought a looser brush and a warmer light, had died more than a generation earlier, after an even shorter life. Eugène Delacroix, Romanticism's greatest exponent in France, and J. A. D. Ingres, who led the Classicism against which it rebelled, had by the 1850s grown into old masters. Now, in the Salon, art played at official expense to a bourgeois audience, while a newer Realism simmered beneath the surface. Artistic rebellion no longer resembled the struggle of great nations on a wider stage. It looked instead to an emerging avant-garde.

Into the unknown

Today, Chassériau largely molders in regional museums, and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux in Paris has in fact organized the show along with the Met and the city of Strasbourg. Textbooks may not so much as mention him—not even those in the ever-present gift shop on the way out. At 135 works, filled out with some eighty drawings, the Met's bloated exhibition could well call itself "Sketches of a Minor Romantic." I might even enjoy that exhibition.

Yet the show's actual title claims more. "The unknown Romantic"—the definite article demands attention, and so did Chassériau. A prize student of Ingres himself, he quickly grasped the master's loose but finicky line. Early sketches stick to outlines, in one extended curve wittily recreating a form and a personality to go with it. One remembers how Picasso relished the same effect.

I almost skipped right past the third term in the equation, Romantic. For starters, forget Classic versus Romantic. That famous struggle for the soul of French art really took place within Romanticism. Ingres, who catered to the Restoration and haute bourgeoisie, makes rather a poor substitute for the Enlightenment anyhow. His portraits take marvelous liberties with sense. And with his odalisques and Turkish baths, he introduces the Orientalism and sensuality of the French empire and the Romantic ideal.

Chassériau understood that, but he also jumped ship the moment he saw Delacroix. From then on, his art turns to narrative, and his brushwork turns to the gold-streaked, mottled reds and greens that give Delacroix's canvas almost the feel of shot fabrics. His paired Jewish Women on a Balcony, in red and green like twin poles of the imagination, have the greater artist's exoticism. Whereas Ingres would have bent their flesh toward the viewer, they lean away into a far stranger world, at once enclosed and open to the sky, their backs to the viewer. Each thrusts back just one elbow and jeweled hand, as if at once to assert and to withhold her sexual being.

It all makes for a fine story, perhaps even a true one. But does it make for that much of an exhibition? In practice, one drifts through it quickly, and one leaves knowing all too well why history has left the artist behind.

For one thing, the sheer quantity gets out of hand, and the dozens of drawings only make things worse. They offer poor excuses for murals one that cannot see in person. On paper, this artist looked to neither Ingres's finish nor Delacroix's impulsive brilliance, much less the observational instinct of an earlier Romantic across the channel, John Constable. His sketches get the job done. They serve as notes, toward what might end up as fragments of a pose. Worse, those very same limits get in his way as a painter.

The aria and the choir

He aspires to Ingres's grandeur and Delacroix's immediacy, but he thinks in fragments. He has a flair for a woman's hands, a wild man's fierce scowl, or the toss of a horse's head in close-up. In his conception of the Romantic, each carries the inner life and force of an entire person. Yet his compositions fall to pieces, like an opera in which everyone tries to sing an aria at once. He may not have done well at early Salons, but he anticipated some of the worst to come.

Too often, as for Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, his mix of Enlightenment theater and Romantic intensity ends up with a bland homogeneity. Too often as well, the late Romantic obsession with naked women lacks enough self-reflection to rescue it from self-indulgence. One sees why the next generation—culminating in Edouard Manet and the Salon des Refusés—rebelled, seeking other traditions. I started to wonder if the name of one bath scene, the Tepidarium, derives from the Latin for tepid.

For the worst problem of all, Chassériau's Romanticism may shun overt preaching, but the Met preaches to the choir. Once again, it plays with a museum's institutional power and the form of a blockbuster to push a private agenda. As with Orazio Gentileschi last year, history may have forgotten this painter, but the curators—and their academic careers—plainly have not.

Other museums have art education departments. The Met offers a re-education department, right out of 1984. As always, every work has a label. And as with past shows of Jan van Eyck, van Eyck's influence, and Giotto's contemporaries, they make no acknowledgment of controversy.

Since this show pushes not just a thesis, but an artist, it goes most often for cheerleading. From a sketch of a horse, one learns that Chassériau loved horses. From a portrait, one learns that a critic called her svelte, a charming bow to twenty-first century feminine ideals. These efforts pile on the compliments, including the Met's own, as if to forget that this artist failed to make more than one Salon. Even more, the compliments come off shorn of ideas. Could that critic have instead given insight into an entire time and culture?

For that matter, could the artist? Asking just that, I think, is the secret to enjoying some lovely painting. If one can walk past the bad news, the exhibition really does hold rediscoveries. Chassériau's shifting taste tells a lot about the multiple impulses that shaped the course of French Romanticism.

Double trouble

One sees it in how easily he slips from Ingres's shadow into Delacroix's light. One sees it, too, in how quickly he shifts from concentration on a single personality to overblown drama. One is in effect seeing a new kind of theater. Where the Enlightenment theater of simple tales and broad gestures played to the viewer's judgment, here lack of narrative and confused gestures play to emotions, sexual desire, and understanding. This Romanticism calls for a direct relationship, both physical and intuitive, between subject and viewer. Realism and indeed Modernism lie in the wings after all.

Chassériau best anticipates those currents with his people—and with his fascination with another Romantic theme, the double. The two Jewish women with their contrasting colors could serve as mirror images. The choice of an ethnic minority within the East redoubles the perception of an Other.

In tradition, as long ago as van Eyck or Johannes Vermeer, a mirror could glorify art's command of appearances—or release art's fiction and human inclinations into a hall of mirrors. It offered art a window onto reality and into the soul.

For the Romantic, it meant a divided soul. No wonder the women act out an ambiguous relationship to the male viewer. For once, Chassériau seems hardly to pander. For once he gives women minds of their own—and a brute, physical integrity all their own as well. Yet they never quite get to stare back, and his surfaces never look more enticing. A doubling within the work serves to redouble painting's reflection of the viewer.

Chassériau even finds a striking mirror in his own sisters. His double portrait makes his younger and older sibling look much the same age. They dress alike, in those polar colors of red and gold against a green background. Their sleek, dark hair and pale skin have something of the elegance of a past age combined with the austerity and psychic contrasts of the new. The rings on the right hand of one reflect the left hand of the other.

One sister looks forward, while the other turns slightly, with a more knowing expression. As they clutch one another, they seem close enough for the viewer to touch as well, but far out of reach of even a brother's intimacy.

Choosing sides

One can see psychic doubling just as much in a simple portrait. Father Dominique stands with arms drawn close, hands held tight as if to cover his crotch. A shadow cuts his piercing stare. It divides his into black and white, almost like Picasso's doubled portraits in Synthetic Cubism. It redoubles his crossed hands, accentuates his harsh nose, and barely touches the corner of his eye. The same division into black and white gives his clerical garments disturbing overtones.

Even Chassériau's chronic inability to compose in depth helps, whereas it hindered an earlier transitional figure between Classicism and Romanticism, Anne-Louis Girodet. The sitter's icy stare and unmoving vertical seems rooted in the picture plane. Yet he floats, his legs cut off by the frame, before the blond haze and dreamy architecture behind him.

In his Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi, Sandro Botticelli himself looks arrogantly out from the picture. The precise drawing, soft background light, and conflicting perspective similarly detach larger-than-life foreground figures from the merely human, utterly rational arches in the distance. However, the Florentine depicts a miracle—the paradox of God taking human form. Chassériau takes on a troubled intellect and fearsome friendship.

If only the rest of the show, after this first room, stayed as good. One can easily overrate even those early portraits, when others were to exploit much the same intellectual conceit for a more chilling work of art. Still, the artist's falling off says something. Before dying young and heading straight for oblivion, he foretold the end of one set of art wars—and the start of another.

The Met could have called the show "From Ingres to the Salon," to suggest the evolution of Romanticism in the work of just one artist. Academic art may go back to the time of Nicolas Poussin, including Poussin's landscapes, but the Salon had still to change for a broader, increasingly Victorian public. With Chassériau's career, one has a hint of what lay at stake.

Did Romanticism's powerful impulse descend into rigidity, exploitation, tired shocks, and institutional power? One might reflect on the Salons of today, like the Biennial—or the Met.

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"Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856): The Unknown Romantic" ran through January 5, 2003, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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