Charles Gleyre was orphaned at the age of twelve and taken in by his uncle, a modest broker in Lyon. He was expected to turn his artistic talents to a career in manufacturing design in the textile business, but the young man set his sights on the higher art of painting. After studying drawing in Lyon, he began attending the Paris School of Fine Arts in 1825 and discovered a capital city in the grip of artistic ferment.
Despite enrolling at the studio of Louis Hersent, a conventional and a self-seeking flatterer painter, Gleyre displayed a distinctly Romantic temperament in love with freedom and excess. He copied Théodore Géricault and Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, tragic figures whose recent demise was a frequent subject of conversation in the studio.
In 1828, he continued his education in Italy so that he could see the work of Michelangelo, whose eloquent power enthralled him. In Rome, he made the acquaintance of fellow Swiss artist Léopold Robert, whose scenes of brigands in the Roman countryside, a picturesque, heroic and modern subject, were hugely successful at the time. Drawing on the same subject, in 1831 Gleyre produced his first painting – The Roman Brigands –, a scene of unprecedented sadistic realism. In line with the frenetic songs of Berlioz, the work was so violent and irreverent that it could not be exhibited and was doomed to languish unseen in his studio. From then on, the young painter was painfully aware of the gulf between his dream of fame and the freedom to express his creativity.