Marc- Gabriel- Charles Gleyre Biography
Gleyre was a French painter of Swiss origin, was born at Chevilly in the canton of Vaud on the 2nd of May 1806.
His father and mother died while he was yet a boy of some eight or nine years of age; and Gleyre was brought up by an uncle at Lyons, who sent him to the industrial school of that city. Going up to Paris a lad of seventeen or nineteen, he spent four years in close artistic study -- in Hersent’s studio, in Suisse’s academy, in the galleries of the Louvre. To this period of laborious application succeeded four years of meditative inactivity in Italy, where Gleyre became acquainted with Horace Vernet and Léopold Robert; and six years more were consumed in adventurous wanderings in Greece, Egypt, Nubia and Syria. At Cairo Gleyre was attacked with ophthalmia, and in Lebanon he was struck down by fever. Gleyre returned to Lyons in shattered health.
On his recovery Gleyre proceeded to Paris, and, fixing his modest studio in the Rue de Université, began carefully to work out the conceptions which had been slowly shaping themselves in his mind. Mention is made of two decorative panels -- Diana leaving the Bath, and a Young Nubian -- as almost the first fruits of his genius; but these did not attract public attention until long after, and the painting by which he practically opened his artistic career was the Apocalyptic Vision of St. John, sent to the Paris Salon of 1840. This painting was followed in 1843 by Evening, which at the time received a medal of the second class, and afterwards became widely popular under the title of the Lost Illusions. It represents a poet seated on the bank of a river, with drooping head and wearied frame, letting his lyre slip from a careless hand, and gazing sadly at a bright company of maidens whose song is slowly dying from his ear as their boat is borne slowly from his sight.
In spite of the success which attended these first ventures, Gleyre retired from public competition, and spent the rest of his life in quiet devotion to his own artistic ideals, neither seeking the easy applause of the crowd, nor turning his art into a means of aggrandizement and wealth.
After 1845, when Gleyre exhibited the Separation of the Apostles, he contributed nothing to the Salon except the Dance of the Bacchantes in 1849. Yet Gleyre labored steadily and was abundantly productive. He had an "infinite capacity of taking pains", and when asked by what method he attained to such marvellous perfection of workmanship, he would reply, "En y pensant toujours." A long series of years often intervened between the first conception of a piece and its embodiment, and years not unfrequently between the first and the final stage of the embodiment itself. A landscape was apparently finished; even his fellow artists would consider it done; Gleyre alone was conscious that he had not found his sky. Happily for French art this high-toned laboriousness became influential on a large number of Gleyre’s younger contemporaries; for when Delaroche gave up his studio of instruction he recommended his pupils to apply to Gleyre, who at once agreed to give them lessons twice a week, and characteristically refused to take any fee or reward. By instinct and principle Gleyre was a confirmed celibate: "Fortune, talent, health -- he had everything; but he was married", was his lamentation over a friend.
Though Gleyre lived in almost complete retirement from public life, he took a keen interest in politics, and was a voracious reader of political journals. For a time, indeed, under Louis Philippe, his studio had been the rendezvous of a sort of liberal club. To the last -- amid all the disasters that befell his country -- Gleyre was hopeful of the future, "la raison finira bien par avoir raison." It was while on a visit to the Retrospective Exhibition, opened on behalf of the exiles from Alsace and Lorraine, that Gleyre died suddenly on the 5th of May 1874.
He left unfinished the Earthly Paradise, a noble Gleyre painting, which Taine has described as "a dream of innocence, of happiness and of beauty -- Adam and Eve standing in the sublime and joyous landscape of a paradise enclosed in mountains", a worthy counterpart to the Evening. Among the other productions of his genius are the Deluge, which represents two angels speeding above the desolate earth, from which the destroying waters have just begun to retire, leaving visible behind them the ruin they have wrought; the Battle of the Lemanus, a piece of elaborate design, crowded but not cumbered with figures, and giving fine expression to the movements of the various bands of combatants and fugitives; the Prodigal Son, in which Gleyre has ventured to add to the parable the new element of mother’s love, greeting the repentant youth with a welcome that shows that the mother’s heart thinks less of the repentance than of the return; Ruth and Boaz; Ulysses and Nausicaa; Hercules at the feet of Omphale; the Young Athenian, or, as it is popularly called, Sappho; Minerva and the Nymphs; Daphnis and Chloë; and Love and the Parcae. Nor must it be omitted that he left a considerable number of drawings and watercolor paintings, and that we are indebted to him for a number of portraits, among which is the sad face of Heinrich Heine, engraved in the Revue des Deux Mondes for April 1852. In Clément’s catalogue of Gleyre paintings there are 683 entries, including sketches and studies.