Musée d'Orsay: Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909). Naturalism and Art Nouveau

Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909). Naturalism and Art Nouveau

 "His curious research into all areas of his art"

Alexandre CharpentierMaternity© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The development of Charpentier's career is in itself unusual. Attracted by sculpture, the young man was obliged to learn medal engraving at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. His first work, at the age of 21, was a tiny medal featuring a portrait of his mother. But his first success came in 1883 with an imposing bas-relief, Maternity,where the figure is life-size. However, by reducing it and then producing it in various sizes, Charpentier returned to the art of medal making. Then, from 1893, incorporating this relief into a nursery cabinet, he started decorative works, a direction it seems he had been keen to follow.

At the end of his career, Charpentier came back to making medals, mainly for the Société des Amis de la médaille française, and to producing statuary. Unfortunately, his monumental works - Narcissus, The Happy Family, monuments to Charlet and Zola –have disappeared. Only the large relief in polychromatic stoneware Bakers, (Paris, Square Scipion, 5th arrondissement) – remains

"A Bas-reliefer"

Piano lid
Alexandre CharpentierThe Dance© DR
Charpentier's outstanding use of relief is the unifying feature in his work, whether a medal, a large bas-relief, a metal or ceramic object or furniture in wood. He liked to refer to himself as a "bas-reliefer". Along with the Italian Leonardo Bistolfi (1859-1933) and the American Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), Alexandre Charpentier was, without doubt, one of the great bas-reliefers of the late 19th century. 


"The work of art in the age of technical reproducibility."

Alexandre CharpentierJug© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
In general, Charpentier was not known for producing unique decorative works. When he did, it was because they were personal commissions or they were too costly to be duplicated. This was true for the majority of his pieces of furniture, like the Piano  ( 1898) and theArmoire à quatuor (1901), a glazed cabinet for storing stringed instruments. Sometimes he just did not want to repeat the effort, as in the case of Fountain and bowl (1894).
In the late 19th century, according to Walter Benjamin, the work of art had entered a period of "technical reproducibility". Charpentier naturally advocated the reproduction of his creations: not "an indefinite number of copies", but a "carefully limited quantity". He would then choose inexpensive materials and techniques to achieve a reasonable production cost and selling price.


The "sculptor's furniture"

Alexandre Charpentier
 Dining room panelling
 Between 1900 and 1901
 Mahogany, oak, poplar, gilt bronze, glazed stoneware
 H. 346; W. 621 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Alexandre CharpentierDining room panelling© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Charpentier's furniture and interior decorations provoked mixed reactions, and were less highly regarded than those by other architects and designers of his time. What was it that people objected to? Essentially, to his diversity, an indication of "wild fantasy". But can Charpentier be criticised for wanting continually to push the boundaries and draw on a variety of sources?
The artist deserves praise for bringing his "fantasy" to very unusual commissions. In fact, several of his pieces of furniture were something of a challenge. The high, deep cupboards and shelves of the Armoire à quatuor ,provide storage space for scores and bows, which are not for display. The instruments, on the other hand, are displayed behind the glazed doors. This unique piece of furniture perfectly combines beauty and function.
For his Billiard Table,Charpentier decided against marquetry, commonly used at the time. He was looking for a decorative solution for catching the balls at the table corners. So he came up with the idea of collecting them in the folds of a dancer's skirt, as the bronze was strong enough to withstand the repeated drop of billiard balls.

Bronze statuette
Alexandre CharpentierDancer© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Sophie Boegly
"Portable statuary"

Art Nouveau was the triumph of the object, and sculptors made a major contribution to this. What was Charpentier's suggestion? "A sort of small portable statue", in the manner of Camille Mauclair, whose speciality was to choose a traditionally shaped object – jug, sugar bowl, letterbox, crumb brush, etc. and make it unique by applying a sculpted decoration. The relief was often so protruding as to become a sculpture in the round.

But Charpentier never gave way to vulgarity or ostentation. He produced "tiny, slender forms", discreet and sensuous feminine figures. His characters are endowed with dignity and even seriousness, a long way from the beguiling smiles of many Art Nouveau trinkets. Curiously, their charm rests in the fact that they show no expression, other than concentration or serenity.
Always active figures, even when meditating or contemplating, they radiate a presence and communicative energy, and are more than just ornaments.

"Venus the laundress"

Charpentier's naturalism was not only expressed in his choice of subject – mothers feeding their babies and young children, workers and doctors, portraits of the great and minor exponents of naturalism in literature. It was also expressed in his choice of anti-classical models. His ideal was not that of the traditional Academy painters, but that of the street. Like Jules Dalou (1838-1902) and Constantin Meunier (1831-1905), he used working-class models, and created social types.

Bronze uniface plaque
Alexandre CharpentierWoman with a double-bass© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The sculptor did not choose traditional models for his nudes: "Seeing Venus in the laundress and Ganymede in the adolescent on the street corner" (Rossella Pezone-Froissart). He had two feminine types: one very young, lean and slender, the other older and more ample. The first looked "bony and undernourished" according to Léonce Bénédite, and was put on door fingerplates in a vertical format likeWoman playing the celloand Woman playing the harp.The second was used for the wider decorative plates on the meuble à quatuor, like Woman playing the viola et Woman playing the double bass.


Alexandre CharpentierMilliner© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Gérard Blot
"A more beautiful, harmonious and intense life"

Charpentier produced many images of manual workers with their tools. He liked to illustrate in detail their precise, repeated gestures, their muscles bulging with the effort. In his view, the artist should not limit himself to just designing but should get involved on a practical level. So he would often go to the workshops, get to know the different trades and take a strong interest in the whole process.
Was Charpentier expressing his nostalgia for guilds in this way? He dreamt of "A more beautiful, harmonious and intense life" (interview with Gabriel Mourey in 1902).

This declaration reveals the idealism that flowed through Charpentier. He was a man of conviction – a defender of Alfred Dreyfus, a participant in the "social art" movement and a member of many associations. His anarchic commitment, alongside his friends in the neo-impressionist group (Luce, Pissarro, Signac, Fénéon, etc), was sincere. He expressed his desire to bring art within reach of everyone both in his interviews and in the texts signed by theArt in Everything group, which he founded in 1896.

Nursery cabinet
Alexandre CharpentierNursery cabinet© Musées royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Bruxelles

For Charpentier, everything offered an opportunity for decoration and fantasy. He upset the hierarchy of "major" arts – painting and sculpture – and decorative arts, referred to as "minor arts". He took useful objects and made them beautiful and accessible to all, without ever compromising his originality.