Alexandre Gabriel Decamps (1803 – 1860)
Alexandre Gabriel Decamps was born in Paris (1803). In his youth he travelled in the East, and reproduced Oriental life and scenery with a bold fidelity to nature that puzzled conventional critics. He spent little over a year in the Near East. Although he never returned there during his long career, his paintings had an enormous impact, making him as famous in his day as Delacroix. Like many artists, he painted Oriental subjects before actually travelling to the East, imaginary towns and buildings as early as 1823, and Turkish figures in 1826 and 1827.
The Orient was very much in the public eye because of the Greek war of independence, and when Decamps did travel, in early 1828, it was on a government mission to paint a picture commemorating the battle of Navarino, which had taken place in October 1827. He left for Greece without any great enthusiasm, accompanied by Ambroise Louis Garneray, but the two artists found it impossible to collaborate.
to Asia Minor
Alexandre Gabriel Decamps went on to Asia Minor, arriving in Smyrna in February 1828, where he set up an improvised studio. It was here that he painted his impressions of what he had observed during the day, without the customary help of pencil or watercolor sketches dashed off at the scene. On his return to Paris en 1829, Decamps published an album of lithographs, but it was at the 1831 Salon, where he exhibited seven paintings, that he emerged into prominence.
Many of his pictures are of Turkish soldiers, some are lively scenes of small children with curiously rounded heads, studying or at play, while others depict merchants and butchers in the gloom of their cramped boutiques. Still others are sombre landscapes or more ambitious biblical scenes. Early on, he developed the heavy impasto technique that was to be his hallmark, the brilliant light built up from the dark brown or black shadows in the manner of Rembrandt. Substance and technique, not the subject matter, came first. For this reason, Decamps has a real importance for the development of nineteenth-century painting, since it was through him that the texture of the paint itself was introduced to Diaz de la Pena and transmitted to Monticelli, Cezanne and Van Gogh.
Decamp’s glamourized, fanciful interpretation of the Orient, the thick, rich browns, ochres and blacks in violent contrast with the ivory and white light, however subjective and deformed, were for many years believed to represent the true Orient and so influenced generations of painters. Hailed as one of the leaders of the new Orientalist school after Delacroix, he was preferred by the bourgeoisie, who considered the Romantics slightly suspect. His most enthusiastic supporters were the baron d’Ivry, the duc d’Orleans and his young brother, the duc d’Aumale (whose collection now forms the Musee Conde in Chantilly), and Richard, fourth Marquess of Hertford.
This extremely rich English recluse, who owned houses in Bagatelle and Paris, spent his fortune on amassing an art collection, which he left to Sir Richard Wallace (now the Wallace Collection in London). Enormous prices were paid for Decamp’s paintings, not only his famous Turkish scenes, but also those of game shooting, basset hounds and whimsical humanized monkeys. But having been brought up, at his father’s express wishes, as a peasant, Decamps lacked the social graces and savoir-faire that were only too necessary at the time to obtain official commissions.
1855 Universal Exhibition
Alexandre Gabriel Decamps stood by while the commissions for the large historical paintings that he most wanted to do were given to fellow artists. Bitter and dissatisfied, he retired to the country, where he destroyed travel notebooks, sketches and studies. On his return to Paris from this self-imposed exile, he scored another eminent success at the 1855 Universal Exhibition, with sixty or so of his works devoted to different themes. Soon afterwards, his health failed, and he retired to the Fontainebleau forest, spending his last years repeating his own earlier compositions. Many of these late works were lost when his widow’s house was destroyed during the Siege of Paris in 1871. Decamp’s watercolors can be ranked on an equal footing with his generally small-sized oils.
Painted with great care, they are not preliminary studies for oils, but are finished pictures in themselves. His work is difficult to date, since his style did not change much, and different paintings often bear the same titles. It was because he was unable to renew his style that even the critics who had been such great admirers in the early days eventually found his painting less interesting. Even today, he has never entirely regained the same level of popularity as during his lifetime.
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