Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909)

Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909). Naturalisme et Art Nouveau
Paris, Musée d’Orsay, from 22 January through 13 April 2008.

1. Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909)
Self-portrait, 1887
Terracotta - 41 x 40 x 23 cm
Lynne and Mark Hammerschlag Collection

In the planning at the Musée d’Orsay for a long time, the Alexandre Charpentier exhibition opened one year prior to the one hundredth anniversary of the death of this remarkable artist who has remained mostly unknown to the general public. A man of demanding spirit and a virtuoso in his execution, this sculptor who created forms in different domains of the decorative arts definitely had earned the tribute in more ways than one. The rigorous and elegant presentation made up of the most significants pieces in his oeuvre (which is in fact vast) finally renders due justice and the steadfast work of the curators in charge of the project as well as the collaboration of the artist’s family, particularly Madeleine Charpentier-Darcy an acknowledged figure for her pioneering work and her exquisite courtesy, should be highly commended. Charpentier distinguished himself intellectually and excelled in his innovative experimentation of forms and techniques, as proven by recent studies showing his importance in the movement that at the end of the XIXth century resulted in the liberating of decorative arts. Although he remains less famous than Guimard, Gallé or other masters of the Nancy School, Charpentier often achieved a more constant perfection than many other artists and played an essential role in the origins of Art Nouveau. Thus the exhibition, in a great variation, shows sculptures, reliefs, medals, furniture, ceramics, pewter pieces, graphic works, posters, embossed papers (one of his specializations), bindings and and other leather objects. The visitor can also rediscover, or perhaps see for the first time, the superb dining room that is among the masterpieces belonging to the museum’s permanent collections (even though a more suitable settting could have been found for the occasion).

2. Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909)
Young Mother Breast Feeding her Child
Stoneware - 60 x 40 cm
Paris, musée d’Orsay
Photo : RMN, Hervé Lewandowski

3. Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909)
Louise or Young Girl with Necklace,
1893 or 1895
Bronze - 25.3 x 12.7 cm
Paris, musée d’Orsay
Photo : RMN, Hervé Lewandowski

Organized at once thematically and chronologically, the Musée d’Orsay’s presentation is determinedly clear, pedagogical and highlights the objects without resorting to artifice. The spacious rooms, the uncluttered display cases, the pleasant lighting and the subtle colors on the walls all join in conveying an impression of balance and harmony that reflect the work itself. Moving beyond the presentation which is perfect in all aspects, the exhibition’s theme lies essentially, as indicated by its title, in the relationship between the “naturalist” transcription of the visible world and the concepts of Art Nouveau. With the exception of the early works, the Self-portrait of 1888 (ill. 1) and the famous relief Young Mother Breast Feeding her Child (ill. 2) as well as some pieces inspired by the family, the sculptor’s so-called “naturalist” inspiration quickly takes on the form of his “decorative” ambitions. A blend of unerringly true observation and an innate sense of composition, Charpentier’s work generally attains a grace rarely this perfect in artists of the period. Thus the simple question of Art Nouveau and Naturalism seems to us a reductive choice. Starting with the famous “plaque” portraits produced for the Théâtre Antoine, the sculptor instills in his models a presence that goes well beyond a physical resemblance or decorative arrangement. The supports in irregular forms, the psychological penetration, the “textured” matter, don’t these elements usually call to mind an atmosphere closer to Symbolism than to Naturalism ? Thus two examples can be found in the very dense portrait of Emond de Goncourt from 1894 or the small plaque representing the Young Girl with Necklace (ill. 3) whose absent expression and haunting look evoke more Joan of Arc or Ophelia than an everyday scene.

4. Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909)
Sentimental sonatinas, 1894
Printed score, lithograph embossed cover in color
of a song collection by the composer
Gabriel Fabreµ
Imprimerie Verneau
30.5 x 23.5 cm
Paris, BnF, Musique
Photo : Paris, BnF, Musique

The sculptor’s multiple activites in editing various decorative and/or functional objects in different matters does not, in our opinion, contradict this Symbolist vocation. Just as important as composition, study of volume and the dynamics of volume, Charpentier evokes the subjects as much as he treats them. Throughout the exhibition galleries, the themes of water and music reveal a vision that leaves allegory or pure ornamentation far behind to become a symbol. Charpentier is the author of the first known Mélisande (ill. 4), an eminently Symbolist image (Cover of the Score for Sentimental Sonatinas by Gabriel Fabre).

5. Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909)
Layette Armoire, 1893
Sycamore, pewter reliefs and incrustations -
57 x 85 x 29 cm
Bruxelles, musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire
© Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire

6. Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909)
Armoire for a String Quatuor, 1901
Hornbeam, bas-reliefs and lock of gilt bronze -
200 x 235 x 65 cm
Paris, musée des Arts décoratifs
© Musée des Arts décoratifs, Jean Tholance

7. Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909)
Music stand, 1901
Foot and frame of hornbeam, stand of tamo wood -
200 x 235 x 65 cm
Paris, musée des Arts décoratifs
© Paris, Photo Laurent Sully Jaulmes,
All rights reserved

8. Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909)
Child Singing, model for door décor, 1893
Patinated plaster - Diam. 6,6 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : RMN, Hervé Lewandowski

The splendid furniture produced by the artist, Layette Armoire (ill. 5), Armoire for Quatuor (ill. 6), Stand (ill. 7) and even the superb furniture in Baron Vita’s billiards room often associates a wealth of forms and a richly evocative repertory of figures. From the smallest format (such as the door handles - ill. 8 - and lock covers) to the reliefs on the furniture or the women in the billiards room, Charpentier designed an array of structured figures in keeping with their architectural function but also with a self-contained meaning. Although the muscular figures of the workers and craftsmen who reveal Charpentier’s love of the innovative world of industrial arts resemble in fact more those of Constantin Meunier’s universe, there is no doubt that the women playing different instruments (ill. 9) or singing, the dancers, the Narcissus of the fountain and the Thinker on Dalpayrat’s inkwell all belong in the Symbolist pantheon.

9. Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909)
Woman Playing the Alto, also called The Alto, 1901
Plaster - 31 x 34 cm
Private collection
Photo : Patrice Schmidt, Musée d’Orsay

An absolute master of reliefs, Charpentier does in fact have a rare talent for occupying a space, at times quite small, such as a medal, a small stoneware or bronze plaque or an illustrated theatre program. The treatment applied to these creations seems to us however to effect a true merging between the formal attributes of Art Nouveau and an inspiration which is solidly anchored in the Symbolist universe, as proven by the artist’s close links with major figures of the time : Claude Debussy, Vincent d’Indy and Louis W. Hawkins of whom he left us an amazing Mask (ill. 11). In his reliefs (Charpentier called himself a “bas-relièfeur”), the figures emerge skilfully from the background and seem sculptural in their proportions while still communicating an intimacy so seductive as to invoke mystery as much as observation.

10. Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909)
Louis-Welden Hawkins, 1893
Bronze mask - 26 x 21 x 12 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Musée de la Monnaie,
Jean-Jacques Castaing

It is difficult to describe the exhibition by following its layout and the sequence of works ; although they are useful and didactic, wasn’t Charpentier’s goal to go beyond the gulf separating the utilitarian object from the objet d’art ? From the minute relief to the full-standing sculptures and from the posters to the furniture, Charpentier’s universe can always be recognized by its harmony and the veracity of its inspiration. Now and again, it is true, one can see that the smaller formats are more suited to the artist’s talent and if some of his monumental sculptures have disappeared, they obviously did not constitute his best work. On this subject, the group The Flight of Time that decorates the clock designed in collaboration with Tony Selmersheim, is very revealing. The small format of this very popular sculpture is more convincing than its enlargement (both are displayed here side by side) ;but these are negligeable exceptions.

10. Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909)
Dining room set of
the banker Adrien
Bénard in Champrosay,
Mahogany, oak and poplar ; metalwork of gilt bronze ;
Flower stand
of enamelled stoneware
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
© Photo RMN, Hervé Lewandowski

The exhibition concludes with the presentation of some of the furniture for the Baron Vita’s billiards room (which is still preserved in situ today at the Villa La Sapinière in Evian with the work contributed by Chéret, Rodin, Besnard and Bracquemond) as well as the dining room set belonging to Adrien Bénard, from the Champrosay estate (ill. 11). These two groups, practically contemporary, illustrate the talent of Alexandre Charpentier in creating overall ornamental volumes as well as refined miniatures. When walking through the galleries one understands the major role of this artist and his decisive action in the defense of Decorative arts and the abolition of the genre hierarchies. There was a good reason for the fact that he participated in all the important events of his time (the Salon de la Rose+Croix, The XX d’Octave Max in Brussels, The Art Nouveau of Siegfried Bing, the Maison moderne of Meier-Graefe, the group Les Six and L’Art dans tout). The show organized by the Musée d’Orsay, accompanied by a catalogue that is perfect in every way scientifically as well as in its editing (and which provides real entries) allows the visitor to admire some of the most beautiful objects of that period and to restore the role that Alexandre Charpentier should have never lost : that of a leading artist of his time.

Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909) Naturalisme et Art Nouveau, Musée d’Orsay, Edition Nicolas Chaudun, texts by Madeleine Charpentier-Darcy, Emmanuelle Héran, Marie-Madeleine Massé, Dominique Morel, 210 p., 40 €. ISBN 978-2-35039-045-1.

Visitor Information : Paris, Musée d’Orsay, 62, rue de Lille, 75343 Paris Cedex 07. Phone : + 33 (0)1 40 49 48 14. OOpen every day except Monday from 9:30 to 18:00 ; Thursdays from 9:30 to 21:45. Rates : 7.50€ (full price), 5.50€ (reducted price).

Website of the Musée d’Orsay

Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, samedi 23 février 2008

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