Claude CHARLES (Nancy, 1661 - 1747)


133 x 76.5 cm. (4 ft. 4 38 in. x 29 1516 in.) each (except Geometry H. 132 cm.) (4 ft. 3 3132 in.)
c. 1700. Four paintings, each oil on canvas

• France, Private Collection

Introducting the Painter

Claude Charles had fresh coloring, much facility in composition and in his manner of drawing; he loved the work, he always took pleasure in training his students, of whom a large number were a credit to him.”

Augustin Calmet, Bibliothèque Lorraine ou Histoire des Hommes illustres qui ont fleuri en Lorraine, Nancy, A. Leseure, 1751, p. 165.

In 1697, after several decades of French occupation, the city of Nancy was restored to Duke Leopold I of Lorraine who was exiled in Austria. In 1698, on November 10th, the Duke and his wife, Elisabeth-Charlotte of Orleans, made their “joyous entry” into the city whose splendor was mainly due to the ephemeral decoration conceived by the painter Claude Charles.

From Lorraine to Italy
The son of Jean Charles who was Prosecutor at the Bailly, a scrivener in Nancy, and a Councilor in City Hall, Claude Charles’ first apprenticeship in the 1670’s was in Epinal under Jean-Georges Gerard who had been to Rome and benefited from a certain reputation as a painter of sacred history. Shortly after 1677, Charles went to Rome where he lived eight years, and made the most of the presence of a Lorraine community which included many artists. In the Eternal City, the painter frequented both the Academy of France which was open to everyone who wished to draw when a model was posing, and the Academy of Saint Luke which also welcomed foreigners. His real masters were the Florentine Giovanni Morandi (1722-1717) and especially Carlo Maratta (1625-1713), who was at the height of his career and uncontested leader of the Roman School. Charles was profoundly influenced by his style and conserved a taste for broad compositions throughout his life.

Paris and Nancy
On the way back from Italy, the artist stopped in Paris where he must have also found numerous compatriots. If the Parisian sojourn remains poorly documented, Charles’ style is evidence of intimate knowledge of the art of Charles Le Brun and the painters of the Academy. In about 1688, the painter returned to Nancy: in 1690, he married Anne Racle, who was from a family of fine metal smiths and engravers. The artist rapidly forged a solid reputataion and was, when Leopold I arrived, considered the best painter in Nancy, along with Charles Herbel (1642-1702), who was son-in-law of Claude Deruet and had made two trips to Vienna under Duke Charles V of Lorraine.

Lorraine: First Painter, Director of the Academy
Thus it was natural that the prince entrusted Claude Charles with many important commissions. In 1701, Charles was appointed First Painter, and then he became Herald of Arms of Lorraine. The following year, Charles became Painter to the City of Nancy, and then the first Director of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture of Nancy which he helped found. A man with tremendous culture, the artist refused nonetheless the letters of nobility which were offered to him by Leopold I.

Claude Charles practiced all the painting genres and techniques, from monumental frescos to miniatures, from portraits to grand religious compositions. The latter, mainly conserved in situ, namely in the Cathedral, the Church of Saint Nicolas, and in the Franciscan Chapel in Nancy, were spared the ravages of time. Of the profane works, however, only an Aenaeas and Anchises whose provenance is unknown gives a fairly positive and precise idea of his talent. The locations of Charity (65 x 47 cm.) ( 25 9/16 x 18 ½ in.), and Peace Giving Her Hand to Justice with Abundance Descending from Heaven (69 x 53.5 cm.) (27 1/8 x 21 1/16 in.), catalogued in the late 19th century in private collections, are no longer known.

Allegorical Paintings
In fact, allegorical painting represented a large part of the artist’s activity, especially in the service of Leopold. Charles painted two ceilings in the Ducal Palace, which was poorly maintained during the French occupation and renovated at great cost to the prince as soon as he settled in Nancy. The first, in the Duke’s bed chamber and realized monochromatically by 1698, depicted a Triumph of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, a real manifesto of State patronage. The second, painted three years later in the study, celebrated the The Glory of the Great, by using allegories and “genie” or winged spirits to evoke the exploits of Leopold’s father, Charles V, against the Turks. It consisted of a coffered ceiling in stucco in the spirit of Le Brun’s salons in Versailles. The artist subsequently delivered five paintings on canvas of the Loves of Psyche and Cupid for Elisabeth’ Charlotte’s study. In 1708 for the château de Lunéville, he realized Hymen presenting Peace to the Lorraine accompanied by the figures of Abundance, the Arts, and in the architecture painted by Giacomo Barilli and Joseph Gille (known as Provençal): Apollo, Painting and Drawing in the center; Architecture and Fame on one side; Tragedy and Music on the other.

Leopold I was not the only one to solicit Claude Charles. With Barilli, he did the fresco décor of the salon and stairwell of the mansion of Jean-Baptiste de Mahuet, first President of the Sovereign Court. The general theme was a panegyric of the magistrate’s virtues symbolized by figures of women in an ideal setting of an Italianate garden enlivened by structures and fountains. Charles’ paintings embellished the mansions of Lunati-Visconti and Lupcourt, as well as Aulnois, Frouard, and Houdemont Castles.

Vestiges of a Lost Corpus
All of these works have disappeared. One can now only barely judge from the drawing, known from a photograph, for the frontispiece of the 1710 edition of the Histoire de Lorraine by Dom Calmet. The vertical format, scenic organization of space, and general composition with a buxom figure of History writing under the gaze of Time and Hercules, the regular distribution of attributes, and the open background correspond exactly to the four Allegories which we present here. History’s laurel-crowned head is an almost perfect replica of our Sculpture, while her tunic slipping off her shoulders and threatening to reveal her breast is that of our Geometry. The typology of the female faces, the drawing of hands of slightly too long arms with pronounced musculature, voluminous draperies with colored linings, softened luminosity, and refined coloring recur in the work of Claude Charles, and remove all doubt as to the attribution of the group to this Lorrain artist. They are thus his only known allegorical works.

Dating our Work
The reproduction in Archictecture of the plan of the Nancy Citadel engraved by Nicolas De Fer in 1693 makes it possible to date the creation of this group very precisely to the very end of the 17th century. In fact, the Treaty of Ryswick made it possible for the ducal family to return to Nancy under the condition of demolishing the fortifications of the New City and part of the Old City. The destruction of the bastions and ravelins began by 1698 and was finished less than a year later. The plan of the city was profoundly transformed, but the memory of the fortifications lived on until the next big survey in 1720 for the Histoire de Lorraine by Dom Calmet who reproduced the contours in dotted lines. The great proximity of our suite of Allegories with the Louis XIVth’s art and the grand Parisian 17th century interiors, the borrowings from Charles Le Brun, as well as the reminiscences of the Bolognese School, of Nicolas Poussin and of Charles Mellin also indicate a date around 1700.

Our Series
Undoubtedly realized for the decoration of a study, our series of Allegories probably isn’t complete. Already the choice of disciplines is curious. Sculpture and Architecture ar present, but not paintin. Similarly, Arithmetic and Music should accompany Astronomy and Geometry to form the quadrivium.. Furthermore, in three pictures, the light comes from the left and in only one, Geometry, from the right. If it is supposed that the paintings were distributed symmetrically in the room and the placement of the shadows corresponded to the windows, then at least four pictures are missing. It should be noted, nonetheless, that the survival of even four elements of the decorative scheme is quite exceptional.

If the series presents great stylistic unity, each element possesses its own composition which is perfectly distinct from the others. Architecture is enthroned on stairs under massive columns and green drapery. She holds a compass and points her index finger towards the map of Nancy which a winged spirit presents her. The Allegory looks at the viewer and seems majestic in her violin and green clothing, with a cangiante drapery in blue and ochre. At her feet are placed other attributes of architecture used by winged putti: a level, a book about the orders, a square. Last, behind her rises a building with a cupola which largely resembles the funerary chapel of the Dukes of Lorraine next to the Church of the Franciscans.

Astronomy stands in a space marked out by a red drapery. Little wings decorate her head and her tunic is light yellow and night blue. Her eyes turned to the sky, she measures Pythagorean squares with a compass held by a young spirit without wings. The background is blocked by a large celestial globe rising from a pedestal.

The terrestrial globe, positioned on the ground, is present in Geometry, personified by a young woman draped in pale pink and crimson. As opposed to her companions, this allegory is seen in a verdant landscape. At her side, a spirit holds a theodolite or graphometer, while little putti measure distances on the globe.

Finally, Sculpture, draped in red-violet and yellow-green, her head crowned with laurel, works on a marble representing Fame. On the edge of the wall which separates the room, similar to that in Architecture, from a park planted with trees, are placed the Farnese Hercules and a bust similar to that of Duke Charles V after the portrait by William Wissing (1655-1687) and broadly diffused through the engraving by Jacob Gole. On the bottom, a small putto finishes a clay head, while a nude spirit displays to Sculpture the medallion of an unidentified man who could be the one who commissioned the group. As is frequent in Charles’ work, the spirit is plunged into a sort of red half-tone similar to the reflection of a fireplace so as to make the young woman’s fresh flesh tones stand out.

An Important Discovery
A real discovery and inestimable contribution to the corpus of Claude Charles, our series of Allegories, with their nobility, monumentality, and color effects in the purest Lorraine tradition, is precious evidence of the renewal of art at the Nancy court under Leopold I.

General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Gérard VOREAUX, “Les peintres à Nancy et Lunéville au temps d’Henry Desmarest,” J. Duron et Y. Ferraton (dir.), Henry Desmarest (1661-1741). Exils d’un musicien dans l’Europe du Grand Siècle, Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, Sprimont, Mardaga, 2005, pp. 149-160.
Gérard VOREAUX, Les Peintres lorrains du dix-huitième siècle, Paris, Messene, 1998.

See more