Jean-Claude Chauray

A Modern Master of the Dutch Golden Age

An Introduction to Chauray

Jean-Claude Chauray, also known as J.C. Chauray (1934 – 1996), was a little-known French artist active through the mid-twentieth century. He grew up in Mauzé-sur-le-Mignon, a tiny hamlet in the western Deux-Sèvres department of France, a stone’s throw from La Rochelle. His childhood, aligned with the outbreak of World War Two, was defined by turbulence, and sadly little is known about his artistic training. Nevertheless, he pursued a fascination with Dutch-inspired still life paintings with an accuracy and luminosity that the masters of the Golden Age could only dream of.

Luminous oranges, golden cherries, and succulent apricots, set against dark backdrops of glistening pewter and iridescent glassware. Despite their captivating opulence, Chauray’s indulgent still lifes are somewhat obscure. He was simply a master of the wrong century; his works were perhaps unappealing to a mid-twentieth century art market that was otherwise occupied by garish Pop Art, playful Neo-Dada, and provocative Minimalism. It was a world away from Chauray’s 17th Century-inspired hyperrealism. 

    Bowl of apples, pears and lemons with books and glass vases

    An Appropriation in Porcelain

     

    Not unlike the capitalist appropriation of nameless great artists, Chauray’s work was also reformulated for the everyday consumer. Just two years before the artist’s death, the French manufacturer of Limoges porcelain, Bernardaud, used Chauray’s paintings on a collection of tableware, primarily dessert bowls and decorative plates. Taken out of its artistic context, Chauray’s work appropriated onto porcelain looks twee and dated. Rather than fit to hang on the walls of the world’s finest galleries, his flaming red and orange fruits have been warped into tableware, destined to become outdated and obscured. It is a tragedy that his work, once exhibited across the globe in Paris, New York, and Japan, retains its most prominent public appearance through Bernadaud’s porcelain. 

    Although it proved to be a somewhat unpopular genre through Chauray’s lifetime, he wasn’t alone in his revival of traditional still life painting. One of his close forebears, Daisy Linda Ward (1883–1937) also rendered immaculate still lifes, combining a razor-sharp composition of luxurious fruits with silverware and decorative faience tableware, and a traditional chiaroscuro colour palette ensuring the clarity of light and colour.

    The Dutch Golden Age & the Elevation of Still Life

    It is clear when admiring Chauray’s paintings that he was inspired by the Dutch Golden Age Tradition of still life. It is a genre that was cherished by an array of art historical greats, from Impressionists to Cubists. Nevertheless, the French hierarchies of the seventeenth century considered still life the most lowly form of painting, instead favouring history painting, portraiture, genre painting, and landscape. The simplicity of the subject meant that the genre was often seen as a little more than an exercise for larger and more dramatic paintings; history paintings often required all five major genres to be brought together into one work.

    But the Dutch Golden Age largely rejected the French Academy’s hierarchy of genres. Following the emergence of Dutch Calvinism, religious (history) paintings were mostly forbidden; the period is distinctive for its lack of religious painting, which had characterised the earlier Italian Renaissance. What’s more, history paintings proved difficult for artists to sell. As a result, Dutch Golden Age painting gravitated to still life, landscape (in particular the winter landscape), realist portraiture, and genre painting.

      A cut wheel of cheese with an artichoke

      Exotic Still Lifes & Colonial Power

      Although characterised by painting, the Dutch Golden Age can be more broadly surmised by wealth. This is evident in the extravagant still life paintings which featured exotic fruits, luxurious fabrics, and opulent tableware that so inspired Chauray. So what brought about this influx of wealth? Like many European countries in the seventeenth century, the Dutch capitalised on colonial trading, extortion, and land colonisation. In particular, the Dutch East India Company (responsible for the colonisation of Indonesia and enslavement of Indonesian people), which was set up in 1602, prospered until the end of the eighteenth century. 

      The representation of wealth in Dutch paintings can be directly linked to foreign goods extracted from colonial endeavours, which lifted the region from its dour past defined by poverty and the humble minimalism of protestantism. 

      An elaborate still life with fruit, a lobster, and tableware
      A still life against a decorative column

      An Unrivalled Mastery 

       

      The Dutch had been early masters of oil paint, capturing light and lustre with unrivalled radiance, echoing the earlier proficiency of greats like Jan van Eyck. This seventeenth century still life of the Italian School pictured below makes for an illuminating comparison with the Dutch tradition. It is clear from this example how Italian techniques lacked the full-bodied vibrancy of Dutch still lifes from the same period. The colours are dull, the forms less rounded, and even the composition leaves something to be desired when compared to the likes of Christiaen van Dielaert, Pieter de Ring, and Clara Peeters.

      The magnificent Dutch Golden Age has inspired countless artists throughout the centuries; some abstracting their techniques and compositions, some elevating their hyperrealism to the point of perfection. Jean-Claude Chauray is one of those artists who refined the tradition into nothing short of mastery. Despite the corruption of his work into Limoges porcelain, his paintings live on in a category of their own: a modern master of the Dutch Golden Age. 

      Still life with an array of fruits on a wooden table

      Thanks for reading!

      The Art Wanderer

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