Charles Joshua Chaplin; Painter of Belle Époque Beauty

The work of the important 19th century French artist Charles Joshua Chaplin (1825-1891) may have recreated the romanticism and elegance of 18th century portraiture but his subjects were nevertheless recognisable as modern women. According to the contemporary art critic Frédéric Loliée; “The portraits of women always lit up with charming colours…captivate you, they seduce you”, and as one of the great fathers of Impressionism Édouard Manet admitted, Chaplin knew; “the smile of a woman”.

‘L’Extase’ by Charles Joshua Chaplin, currently available from Academy Fine Paintings.

By the late 1850’s Chaplin was being inundated with commissions from the French aristocracy requesting portraits of their wives and daughters. Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, was also a big fan and appointed him an artist of the court. Her and her husband’s enthusiastic support would soon come in especially useful when, in 1859, Chaplin’s portrait ‘Aurora’ was banned by the judges of the Salon for being “too erotically suggestive”. The disqualification order was subsequently overturned when Napoleon III himself sprung to Chaplin’s defence.

The critical and commercial success of Chaplin’s beautifully lit portraits of sensual young women captured en déshabillé established him as one of the foremost romantic academic painters of the period. The French author Edmond About claimed Chaplin had “invented a genre of new, elegant, rich decoration in harmony with the luxury and comfort of modern palaces.”

His enormous popularity didn’t prevent Chaplin from setting aside a considerable amount of his time to teaching, and from his studio in Paris he oversaw the artistic training of countless students including many who would go on to achieve fame in their own right. This goes a long way to explaining the sheer number of copies of Chaplin’s work that remain in circulation today. Although, like most successful artists of the time, Chaplin himself painted numerous replicas of his most popular pictures so too did his acolytes. Faithfully replicating important works of established masters was then, as it is now, a perfectly normal part of a young painters education but sadly these copies frequently reappear for sale today and are often erroneously sold as the work of Chaplin. These look-a-likes vary wildly in quality but even the best of them fall short of the real thing. To anyone who truly knows the artist a genuine Chaplin is unmistakable.    

The final quarter of the 19th century was in many ways of course the era of Impressionism and Chaplin and his great contemporary William-Adolphe Bouguereau were considered by the New Wave to be somewhat old fashioned and retrogressive. Looking back to this period we can now surely see how ridiculous such a notion always was, not least as it fails to take into consideration the enormous – and at the time controversial – contribution made by these two artists to the inclusion and advancement of women in an art world that was then a private members’ club for men only.

Unlike many of the male Impressionist painters, Chaplin was an early advocate of the training of female art students. In 1866 – years before other leading Academic artists like Bouguereau, Jean-Jacques Henner and Carolus-Duran followed suit – Chaplin took the innovative step of opening his studio to young female artists. In the second half of the 19th century it wasn’t the avant-garde furthering the cause of female painters in France it was an establishment figure like Charles Chaplin. Remember, this was 30 years before women artists were allowed into the Ecole des Beaux Arts to even study. In the art world of 19th century Paris – much of the machismo and misogyny wasn’t to be found in the pictures of academic painters like Chaplin, but on the walls of the Salon des Refusés. We’re always hearing how much Degas, Gauguin, and Picasso “loved women”. Well they certainly loved having sex with them but whether they respected them, like Chaplin so clearly did, is another matter. 

During his lifetime Charles Chaplin was awarded numerous medals at the Paris Salon and in 1865 he was declared a Chevalier and later Officer of la Légion d’Honneur (1881). Today, works by Chaplin are held in the collections of the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage in St Petersburg, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

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