The charming work of the 19th-century French artist admired by Joséphine Bowes and currently on display at the exhibition marking the 125th anniversary of the Museum, Joséphine Bowes: A Woman of Taste and Influence.
The vast collection of fine art housed at The Bowes Museum is eclectic to say the least, ranging from 16th-century Flemish triptychs to 18th-century Italian portraiture and 19th-century French landscapes. The work of one particular artist, whose paintings exude irrefutable innocence and charm, can be viewed on permanent display in Room 37 and in the temporary exhibition Joséphine Bowes: A Woman of Taste and Influence (20 May – 16 July 2017). The artist in question is the 19th-century French portraitist, Charles Chaplin (1825-1891).
As a current intern at the Museum, my roles as room steward and curatorial and exhibitions assistant have provided me the delightful opportunity to become familiar with and to immerse myself in the Museum art collection currently displayed in the galleries. As a university student with a background in history of art and as an artist myself, I relished this prospect.
On perusing the gallery walls, my eye was instantly drawn to Chaplin’s virtuosity to capture the grace, femininity and personality of his sitters in modestly-sized paintings. Indeed, their elaborate, deep gilded frames made his works on first viewing even more attractive.
Charles Chaplin trained at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1840 and entered the Salon in 1845 as a portrait and landscape painter. He soon gained fame and success for his subtle portrayals of women in pastel shades and his sensuous rendering of flesh. He also taught several women artists in his studio, one of whom is believed to be Joséphine Bowes. Joséphine was a talented artist in her own right and greatly respected Chaplin’s artistry. Accordingly, she collected some of his work for the Museum.
Five works in The Bowes Museum collection are attributed to the artist. One of my favourite works is Girl in a Pink Dress sitting at a table with a dog (c.1860-1870) (B.M.392), in which a lady in a heavy pink Rococo-style dress is sat on a blue-striped chair teasing her dog with sugar lumps from a bowl taken from the tea-set placed next to her on a side table. The naturalism of the creases of her dress, the light and shadow of her face, and the impressionistic style capturing her sincere expression and the playful moment between owner and pet is delightful.
Undoubtedly, whatever interests and taste in art one possesses, both the literal and metaphorical softness of Chaplin’s portraits retain unassailable unique appeal.
By Suzanne Lithgo, Durham University MA student intern