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Charles Gleyre Photo

Charles Gleyre

Swiss-French Painter

Born: May 2, 1806 - Chevilly, Switzerland
Died: May 5, 1874 - Paris, France
"Nature is fun to study, but style is everything."
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Charles Gleyre
"When one does something, one must go back to the ancients."
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Charles Gleyre
"Call to mind a young man who, when one draws him as a figure, one must always think of as antique."
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Charles Gleyre
"By always thinking of it."
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Charles Gleyre
"I don't see anything in the world that's worth a hope or a regret. I mistrust all men and myself most of all."
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Charles Gleyre

Summary of Charles Gleyre

Gleyre's reputation was built on a series of works based on classical parables, but also as the teacher of the future Impressionists. Although often thought of as a conservative artist, he can be credited, next to Paul Delaroche and Thomas Couture, with creating what became known as the juste-milieu ("happy medium") painting style. It was a form of painting that sought to bring modern innovations to academic paintings. Once established as a significant figure on the Salon circuit, Gleyre took over Delaroche's Paris studio and transformed it into what was arguably the most progressive school in Paris. His was a radical set up in which his students - which included the likes of Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Jean-Frédérick Bazille and James McNeill Whistler - were offered a say in the day-to-day running of the atelier. A man of strongly held political beliefs, his studio doubled as a meeting place for liberal thinkers but, just as his party politics failed to transform French society, so his eyesight failed him too, and in his later years he withdrew more and more from public life.


  • It might be most accurate to label Gleyre a "romantic academic" given that his best-known works brought the forms, colors and sounds of his journey throughout North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean to bear of his reimagined mythological and history paintings. It was an approach that divided the opinion of traditionalists but established him as a unique voice within eighteenth-century academy painting.
  • Many historians have suggested that Gleyre greatest contribution to the canons of eighteenth-century art was as the head of a studio which he inherited from Delaroche. Under Gleyre's direction the studio - which was dubbed "The Republic" because it afforded (amongst other things) students a voice the running of the school - broke new ground in its open approach to teaching and learning and some of the greatest artists of the late-nineteenth century passed through its doors.
  • Gleyre once dismissed landscapes as "good for the youth who haven't yet had their First Communion or for old people who no longer have sufficient imagination to invent subjects and paint figures". But in his highly personalized and evocative visions of the ancient past, he invested great imaginative detail in his landscapes. Often featuring desolate desert, mountains and sparse outcrops, his terrains, which drew directly on his memories of North African in the mid-afternoon, provided uniquely exotic backdrops to his historical and mythical parables.
  • Gleyre's art often provided a vessel for his impassioned political opinions. At the same time he earned a reputation for the dedicated way in which he went about researching his subject matter, and the subtle ways that research revealed itself in fine narrative details. On this topic, the Musée d'Orsay observed that his "complex compositions [aimed] to be instructive and to inspire the cathartic emotion of a face-to-face encounter with the heroes of a history [but] viewed afresh through the prism of his Republican beliefs".

Biography of Charles Gleyre

Charles Gleyre Life and Legacy

Justifying his practice of reinterpreting the stories of antiquity through the lens of personal experience, Gleyre was quick to remind his distractors that the major Greek sculptor "Praxiteles borrowed the better elements of a hundred imperfect models in order to create a masterpiece".

Important Art by Charles Gleyre

Cleonis and Cydippe (1842-3)

The mythological character of Cydippe briefly appears in Book IV of Virgil's Georgics. Assuming Virgil was Gleyre's only source, this episode, and the personage of Cleonis, have been born of the artist's imagination. The palette is of an all-over cool blueish tone that refers to Cydippe's identity as a Nereid or water nymph. Cleonis turns from Cydippe here with languid arms as if uncertain, timid or mournful. Cydippe's reassuring arm grasps him round the neck as she looks at Cleonis intently.

Cleonis's tanned body tells us of an active masculinity while Cydippe's body is pale and in a recumbent position, usually an indication of passivity. However, despite the fact she is reclined, it is Cydippe who is active here, in her expression, searching eyes and her gesture. Cleonis is sitting but seemingly paralysed by reticence. Gleyre could be attempting to portray the "dangerous wiles" of woman operating on the unsuspecting sincerity of men. Or this could be an exercise in the blurring of the line between masculinity and femininity, as Cleonis is painted as if stultified by Cydippe's touch and gaze.

Evening (1843)

Evening (1843)

This work, which brought Gleyre brief acclaim at the 1843 Salon, blends Classicism with Romanticism. In terms of the subject-matter, and Gleyre's highly refined drawing, it belongs within the classical tradition. Yet the picture's prevailing mood is one of introspection which is in keeping with the Romantic obsession with emotion and subjectivity. The mood of the work converges on the seated man in shadow but is also evident in the depiction of the subtle light of the dying day.

The episode has not been found in mythology or ancient history and seems to have been a creation of the artist's imagination. The man is a poet, a cipher perhaps for the artist himself, as a lyre lies on the ground next to him. He is slumped over while he watches the departing boat which catches the last of the sunlight, while he is in shadow. Large in scale given his proximity to the viewer, the poet is shrouded in dark tones that obscure his muscularity and which could be analogous to his waning creative powers. The ensign and flags of the boat show the direction of the wind as the muses of poetry and song drift away, leaving the bereft poet to his saturnine mood of self-contemplation. His darkness can also be read as blindness which doubles the painting's meaning. It can refer to the inability to render eternal truths through art and to the mythical blindness of Homer. This twofold significance of Gleyre's dark poet brings out a certain pathos: rather than the trope of the seer-poet who is physically blind such as Homer, this poet's blindness is barren. There is a similar contrast between the song-making of the departing muses; their faces enlivened and one of whom looks to the sky with a wreathed head, and the poet. Bearing down upon the poet is the sole adornment of an almost eclipsed moon that rhymes with the light fading from his face.

Conceived originally by Gleyre after a near-hallucinatory experience on the banks of the Nile, he wrote in his journal at the time that "the triple harmony of forms, colours and sounds was complete". The picture's fading subtle light, the carefully rendered volumes of the figures and the music-making of the muses show an attempt to recapture the synesthetic experience. The art historian William Hauptman has written "the boat filled with ghostly and spiritually distant figures brings the classic-romantic conflict into a telling unity and at the same time appeals to the persistent taste in France for introspective reflection and poetic reverie in painting".

The Dance of the Bacchantes (1849)

The Dance of the Bacchantes (1849)

Brightly lit, for the most part, beneath a dramatic sky of movement that seems to imitate the sacred ritual's dancing, is a scene of the devotees. The sheer rock face of the background masks the ceremony from the broader countryside and emphasises its secrecy. As has been noted that Gleyre has, unusually for such a scene, excluded icons of masculinity: there is neither Silenus nor the typical male satyrs of the woodland. Bacchus himself is only present in the form of his bronze statue on the column to the left. This religious and intoxicated fervour is here the preserve of women. This divergence from conventional depictions of the subject is symbolised by the central dancer who holds Bacchus's inverted staff (thyrsus), its pinecone pointed to the ground. The composition is in the arrangement of a classical frieze in a narrative that follows the stages of activity from right to left. From the right where we see the two seated bacchantes playing music, to the central dancing group, the eye moves to the left where inebriation has taken its toll; except for the incense-burning priestess who stands upright in front of the column of Bacchus.

The priestess along with the seated pipe player (second from the right) are the only two characters who peer out at the spectator. This creates a tension between the exclusive nature of the clandestine ritual within the pictorial world and the visibility of Gleyre's portrayal of it to the spectators of the painting. An unnamed critic has remarked of the work's "choreography, which is both noble and unbridled, frenzied and rhythmic". But for all of the "frenzy", Gleyre's orderly and schematic composition, which seems to crystallise in the thyrsus-bearing dancer, confers the balanced nobility that the critic referred to. The artist seems to delicately counterpoise reason and its subversion.

The Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne says of the work: "There is no wild eroticism with the Swiss master, just partially denuded bodies bestowing a delicately sensual note on the scene; no frantic savagery, but instead a severe ritual. Gleyre renews the iconography by turning the bacchanal into a cultic and mystic moment. But if his Antiquity is meditative, it is not so dreamlike as to overlook even the slightest archaeological detail, which he revisits in the light of contemporary research, particularly with regard to polychrome sculpture".

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Charles Gleyre
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
  • No image available
    Horace Vernet
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    Léopold Robert
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Shane Lewis

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd

"Charles Gleyre Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Shane Lewis
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd
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First published on 17 Mar 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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