Charles Gleyre’s role in the epic story of 19th century French painting is all too often overlooked. This artist, who made Paris his adoptive home, actually showed little regard for his legacy in France. Born in the Canton of Vaud in 1806, Gleyre remained a lifelong Swiss citizen and fervent Republican. After Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1851 coup d’état, which he deplored, he entertained little, stopped exhibiting, and spurned public commissions. Ill-health and the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 forced him to give up teaching.
Taciturn, solitary, cynical and humble, Gleyre was already close to being consigned to oblivion when he died in May 1874. His friend Charles Clément strove in vain to gather the last remaining accounts of those who knew him and to inventory the many works of art which had already been scattered abroad. Before long, the melancholic canvas Lost Illusions in the Musée du Louvre was the last remaining vestige. He was remembered as the first teacher of Sisley, Bazille, Renoir and – more fleetingly – Monet, all rebellious pupils rather than disciples.
Why is it therefore worth bringing Gleyre back into the public eye in an exhibition? Is it because he was an impassioned Romantic and intrepid traveller who then became an apostle of Beauty? Is it because his passion for the past inspired him to imagine a prehistoric landscape? Is it because this dyed-in-the-wool misogynist elevated the power of female creativity to new heights? Was he the last imitator of Neoclassicism, a repentant Romantic or a precursor of Symbolism? The full richness of the paradoxical and inventive work of Charles Gleyre, which is a mirror for the 19th century, can now be seen afresh by the 21st century.