Spotlight / Charpentier’s Melancholy


Constance Marie Charpentier, Melancholy, 1801, oil on canvas, 130 x 165cm, Musée de Picardie, Amiens, France.

The above shows the best-known painting of nineteenth-century French artist Constance Marie Charpentier. Her work resonates inspiration from the Neo-Classical movement, popular amid French painters of the time. Charpentier was considered one of the finest portrait painters of the period and won numerous prizes throughout her career.  So acclaimed was her work that several paintings were misattributed to her male contemporary and supposed teacher, established Neo-Classical artist Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). Whilst primarily specialising in portraiture, Charpentier also represented scenes of daily life and, as can be seen in the image above, figures of a mythological or allegorical nature. Although the latter themes were deemed less suited for female talent during this era, Melancholy showcases Charpentier’s artistic skill and absolute capability for tackling the visualisation of mythological subject matter. A lone woman sits in the grass wearing a dress and sandals that are evocative of classical antiquity. She is brightly lit and radiates against the intruding dark, almost black background of the woods behind her. Her hands are placed limply as if she has slumped onto the ground having been defeated by her encroaching and overpowering sense of melancholy.

For many of us around the world during this confusing and difficult time, we are isolated from one another or alone completely. Perhaps some are feeling melancholic and defeated by the world that now feels as though it has lost its light. It has become the norm to see others wearing latex gloves and surgical masks, or, failing that, a scarf wrapped around the lower half of a face that is tightly gripped as people pass each other on the street. It has become the norm to see queues outside supermarkets and people spaced two-metres apart. The current pandemic has separated us. It has forced us to isolate ourselves from one another, causing a great deal of fear, anxiety, and melancholy for many. But amid this crisis, it has also become the norm to see a radical and empowering transformation. Yes, we have had to separate ourselves from society but we have also come together in an unprecedented and beautiful way. The melancholic woman in Charpentier’s image is grieving and has been captured in a moment of despair and dismay. But beyond the darkness, there is light between the trees that signal hope. Even though it feels unreachable and unattainable, life still exists for her and for us. In separation and isolation, there is unity and solidarity.

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