Carolus-Duran, Charles Emile Auguste

Lille 1839 - Paris 1917
Biography & List of works

Les Baigneuses de Fontainebleau

Les Baigneuses de Fontainebleau

Medium: Oil On Canvas

Size: 72 x 99 cm

Signed: and dated lower right: A Arsène Alexandre/Carolus-Duran, Automne 1899


Arsène Alexandre, Paris; Schweitzer Gallery, Inc., New York; Private collection


Exhibited: Nassau County Museum of Art, La Belle Époque, 10th June – 24th September, 1995.

Carolus-Duran studied drawing at the academy in Lille with the sculptor Augustin-Phidias Cadet de Beaupré, but by the age of fifteen had begun an apprenticeship in the studio of one of David’s former pupils, François Souchon. After moving to Paris in 1853, where he took classes at the Académie Suisse, Carolus-Duran quickly made the acquaintance of a number of his artistic contemporaries, including Fantin-Latour, Courbet, Manet, and Monet, with whom he would establish life-long friendships.

After traveling Spain and Italy, the artist, in 1872, opened a studio in Paris. Carolus-Duran’s atelier was popular among young artists due, in part, to his accomplishment and success on the Paris art scene, and, in part, because the studio presented a more supportive atmosphere than the stringent, conservative training offered at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The studio proved particularly attractive to expatriate artists, such as John Singer Sargent, who eventually became a close friend of the master, painting the reverent portrait of Carolus-Duran now in the Clark Art Institute.

Such personal homages were matched by equally strong public recognition. Carolus-Duran was a founding member of the Socitété Nationale des Beaux-Arts as well as serving for a time as its president. He was made a chevalier in the French Legion of Honor and was named the Director of the French Academy in Rome in 1905. A major retrospective exhibition of his work has been shown more recently by the Lille Museum and the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

This painting is something of a puzzle. It is dedicated to the artist’s close friend, Arsène Alexandre, a well-known critic and supporter of modern painting. Like Carolus-Duran he had been a close friend also of Manet, and it is perhaps in this relationship that the key to our work lies. An elegant young woman in modern dress, looking behind her past the nude female at left, introduces us to the scene. Carolus-Duran, like Manet in the Nymph Surprised (Buenos Aires, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes), has taken Rembrandt’s Susanna at her Bath (The Hague, Mauritshuis), and placed her by a stream. Boucher’s ‘Diana Bathing’ is seated on a modern park bench, while another nubile female is toweling herself dry. As in Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe, the presence of figures in modern dress, in a rural setting were a shocking innovation. While this work post-dates Manet’s painting by twenty-six years, the reference would have been immediately obvious to M. Alexandre. We have yet to establish the precise implications of this scene.

Stylistically the work is unusual because while it is unresolved, and sketchy, it would be mistaken to consider it unfinished – indeed, as mistaken as such a comment would be of many paintings by Manet. The artist has signed it and dedicated the painting to his friend (although the dedication has been partially effaced), but the sky and bold impasto in the clouds show a higher degree of finish than the more thinly painted foreground.