Swiss teacher of Impressionists rediscovered

Swiss painter Charles Gleyre had a distinctive style

The name of Swiss 19th century painter Charles Gleyre seems to have been forgotten in his native land.

This content was published on September 2, 2011
Emily Wright in Chevilly,

Yet his distinctive style made him famous worldwide in his lifetime and he was to teach and influence greats including Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir and James Abbott Whistler.

Born in the remote village of Chevilly,  canton Vaud, in 1806, Gleyre moved to France to live with an uncle after his parents’ death when he was still a child.

He was to bring a liberal touch to the Paris scene in the 1840s–60s. But the link with his homeland was not lost and he was commissioned to paint two historical paintings for his native canton.

His body now lies interred in his native village, where it was finally returned after no fewer than four moves.

The Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne owns some 500 pieces by Gleyre, including drawings, which are not exhibited often nowadays for lack of space and public interest.

Liberal values

In 1843, Gleyre inherited a teaching studio in Paris. “He soon became known in the Paris world as being free and liberal in his approach,” independent scholar and Gleyre specialist William Hauptman told

Professors contemporary to Gleyre trained their students to follow his style.

“Gleyre had an interest in developing every particular person without imposing, as far as we know, one style or another, and that is exceptional,” said Hauptman.

Moreover he distinguished himself by the fact that he gave free lessons, as he could live off the proceeds of his paintings and knew how difficult it was for a young painter to raise the money for tuition.

Two of Gleyre’s principles  - line is more important than colour, and black is the fundamental colour of tonal harmony – were to influence the works of American artist Whistler.

Gleyre was known as an academic and at times romantic painter. But some of his techniques and small details reveal a pioneer at work. The Deluge, which is currently exhibited at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne, depicts what is left after the great flood, with Noah’s ark in the background.

“Everything in this intriguing picture, from the way the subject is treated to the technique which is applied, is ahead of Gleyre’s time,” museum curator Catherine Lepdor told

He was the first painter to use oil and cover it with pastel, a technique later used by Edgar Degas, creating surreal garments for the two angels who sweep above the arid land.

Swiss paintings

After training to be a painter, Gleyre went to Rome in the 1830s and met an American industrialist, who took him on a journey to the Middle East so that he could paint the various landscapes they came across for him.

He then spent most of his life in Paris. Among his wide oeuvre are two patriotic Swiss paintings, commissioned by canton Vaud. The first one, Major Davel (1850) is a painting of canton Vaud’s independence hero, Jean Daniel Abraham Davel.

The painting was an enormous success when it was first exhibited in Lausanne. It no longer exists, having been destroyed by vandals in 1980.

Gleyre spent four years working on the painting, which was the inspiration for a statue later erected in front of Lausanne Castle.

The second commission by canton Vaud, The Romans Passing under the Yokes (1858), took the painter eight years to finish.

He chose to depict an episode of Roman history taken from Livy, which tells the story of the defeat of the Romans by the Helvetian leader Divico. In the background are the Swiss Alps, which were placed there by the painter symbolically, the battle having taken place elsewhere.

This painting too was widely acclaimed in Switzerland when it went on show.

In and out of fashion

So why is the name of this remarkable painter not better known in Switzerland?

“We don’t look at 19th century painting except for the last part,” said Hauptman.

“You have to be curious and people are not, people stick to the usual and what is ‘in’.”

In the 1930s the Musée des Beaux-Arts had a permanent Gleyre exhibition and he was very much in vogue.

Hauptman says Swiss universities could put more focus on teaching Swiss painters and museums could exhibit Gleyre more often, though he admits that it is a challenge for any museum to choose which third of their collection to exhibit.

Gleyre is currently being shown in Lausanne as a part of an exhibition devoted to the history of acquisition of the museum’s paintings.

While much of his oeuvre goes in and out of fashion, Lepdor says Gleyre’s oriental works are very popular. Some were included in the exhibition “From Delacroix to Kandinsky” (de Delacroix à Kandinsky.  L’Orientalisme en Europe), which has been shown across Europe.

Four funerals and no wedding

Gleyre never married but was buried four times.

When Gleyre died unexpectedly while visiting an exhibition in 1874, his body was first buried in Paris before being transported to Chevilly by rail upon the request of his niece Mathilde Gleyre, who believed he should rest in his home town.

However she was concerned his memory would not received the honour it deserved in such a remote place and decided the body should be moved to Lausanne. The transfer to a Lausanne cemetery was made in 1895.

In the 1920s, a new bigger cemetery (Montoie) opened in Lausanne and almost all the tombs were moved. But Gleyre was left there until after the Second World War, when it was decided he should rest in his home town.

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