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 travelling in 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 his master, painting the striking portrait of Carolus-Duran now in the Clark Art Institute.
Such personal homages were matched by equally strong public recognition. Carolus-Duran was a co-founder in 1890 of the Socitété Nationale des Beaux-Arts as well as serving for a time as its president. He was made a chevalier of the Order of the Legion of Honour and was named the Director of the French Academy in Rome in 1905. A major retrospective exhibition of his work was recently held at the Lille Museum and the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.
This sketchy but boldly painted work is evidently close related to, and perhaps a preliminary idea for, the highly finished Le fin d’été, painted in 1874, (oil on canvas, 146 x 177 cm, current location unknown, exhibited at the Salon, 1875). This presents what first seems to be a pictorially familiar motif - a group of nude women, or figures half-draped in robes, after bathing - but set in what may have been a familiar public park. Carolus Duran was not an artist who habitually sought controversy but even with his Danae, a subject used as an excuse for sensual nudity for some three centuries, one critic refused to allow him this subterfuge, accusing him of being ‘en rupture avec les canons académiques… M. Carolus-Duran n’a pas voulu dessiner une divinité, mais peindre une femme.’ With Le fin d’été the artist went further, refusing to adhere to the long-standing artistic pretence that classical mythology offered, if only with a title, as Eduard Manet had satirized this custom so brutally with Olympia in 1863. Carolus-Duran has made no allusion to Diana, Venus or Nymphs Bathing that would have cloaked his delicate subject in a socially acceptable mythological framework. Instead the figures in Le fin d’été adopt what seem to be casual poses, apparently unaware or uncaring of any hidden observer who might revel in their immodest attitudes.
In Le fin d’été Carolus-Duran adapted each of the figures from well-known paintings with which a sophisticated viewer would likely have been familiar. The most obvious is the seated figure on the right, taken directly from Boucher’s Diana bathing (Louvre, Paris) which in turn referred to Rembrandt’s Susanna at her Bath (The Hague, Mauritshuis). The composition is not placed in any obvious time frame and could perhaps be explained in a more traditional academic context, although few Salon visitors would have believed these young women with their fashionably cut hair were meant to represent figures from antiquity. Our painting stretches artistic conventions even further, as the park bench on which the ‘Diana / Susannah’ figure is seated is unquestionably contemporary and although two of the nudes have been removed, a fashionably dressed woman has been placed in the left foreground, perhaps expecting the arrival of some unknown participant in the drama. While the figures in the finished work preserve some modesty in their attitudes, in our painting the woman drying herself (even though her face is hidden), the Diana / Susannah figure and the Titianesque figure on the far bank are now each boldly turned towards the viewer with only the clothed lady staring away. The artist has also modified the season - in our painting the trees are all distinguished by the autumn tints while the Salon version is set slightly earlier in the season with just a few leaves turning gold and the weather likely more suited to an outdoor swim.
Carolus Duran evidently retained this work in his studio until nearly a quarter-century later when he presented it to his younger friend, Arsène Alexandre (1859-1937), a vocal supporter of modern painting to whom he inscribed a dedication. (1) Alexandre, for many years the art critic of the Figaro newspaper, was responsible with Félix Fénéon for inventing the term neo-impressionism to describe the work of his friend Seurat and later wrote biographies of several of the leading artist of the modernist school. Like Carolus-Duran, Alexandre had admired Manet and it is perhaps in this relationship that the key to the painting lies. As a young artist Carolus-Duran had been viewed as an innovative follower of Manet, attracting the praise of Émile Zola who, in 1875, wrote “Carolus-Duran is a clever man: he makes Manet comprehensible to the man in the street, he draws his inspiration from him but within limits, seasoning it to suit public taste.” Pierre Véron writing in Les Coulisses artistiques in 1876 noted “Carolus likes Manet, almost to the point of admiring him. [...] This admiration would nevertheless appear unwise, because Manet's failings sometimes seem to parody the qualities of his admirer.”
The changes between the initial idea and the finished work are notable for their return to convention, but while the radical nature and sketchier technique of our version would have appealed to Alexandre, it may also have deterred Carolus Duran, the fashionable and ambitious portrait painter, from presenting such a work to the Parisian public. Was this then, perhaps, originally intended as some private tribute to Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863) then given as an offering to Alexandre as evidence of Carolus-Duran’s radical inclinations if not his practices? Just four years later, in 1903, by which time Carolus-Duran’s star was already in steep decline, Alexandre generously wrote “there are few names as illustrious at the moment in the French school and among the various schools worldwide than that of Mr Carolus-Duran,” demanding a public exhibition as a tribute to Carolus Duran whom he described as “an independent, a painter free of any academicism.” Carolus-Duran’s reputation deteriorated even further with contemporary critics and Alexandre’s tribute was not enough to save him from further assaults. Émile Bernard accused him in 1904 of being unable “to see nor draw” while the critic Thadée Nathanson, in Peints à leur tour in 1943 wrote brutally that his genius lay only in his choice of name, "which, from the first day, did more for his reputation than his work for the rest of his life." Similar attacks were made by other critics with a revival of interest not beginning until the mid 1970s, with an exhibition titled Equivoques at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs also including Couture, Ribot and Bonvin. The artist’s reputation was more recently considerably enhanced with a successful monographic exhibition held in 2003 in the Musée de Beaux-Arts, Lille (with a smaller version of the same in the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse).
1) Carolus Duran was already in his mid-thirties when this was painted but Alexandre was a boy of fifteen and did not begin to make his mark as a critic for another decade.