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.
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of the world’s finest galleries, his flaming red and orange fruits have been warped into tableware, destined to become outdated and obscured.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.
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 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.