Two Nudes or Double Self-portrait

Elisabeth CHAPLIN

Fontainebleau 1890 – Florence 1982

Two Nudes or Double Self-portrait, 1918 ca.

Oil on canvas, 97,5 x 82 cm

Signed lower right: E. Chaplin


Elisabeth Chaplin. I simboli e i giorni, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, 30 October -12 December 1993
Elisabeth Chaplin. Intermezzo romano, Associazione via Borgognona e Piazzetta Bocca di Leone, Rome, 10 – 18 July 2004


Elisabeth Chaplin. I simboli e i giorni, catalogue of the exhibition, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, 30 October-12 December 1993, curated byi G. Serafini, Edizioni Polistampa, Florence, 1993, pp. 20, 57;
G. Serafini, Elisabeth Chaplin. Disegni, Edizioni Polistampa, Florence, 1997.
G. Serafini, Elisabeth Chaplin. Intermezzo romano, catalogue of the exhibition, via Borgognona e Piazzetta Bocca di Leone, Rome, 10 – 18 July 2004, Edizioni Polistampa, Rome, 2004.
G. Serafini, Elisabeth Chaplin. Tre stagioni di simboli, Edizioni Polistampa, Florence, 1994, pp. 132-133;
G. Serafini, Ninfe fiesolane. La pittura di Elisabeth Chaplin, in Art e Dossier, monthly magazine published by gruppo editoriale Giunti, n. 69, 1992, pp. 21-26;
M.S. de Salvia, Elisabeth e i due nudi, in Minuti Menarini, 299, 2001, pp. 15-19;

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The niece of great French painter Charles Chaplin and the daughter of poetess and sculptor Marguerite Bavier-Chaufour, Elisabeth Chaplin moved with her family to Florence when still a child in the early 1900s. It was there that the young Elisabeth began to draw and to open up to that world that was subsequently to confirm her place as one of the most fascinating painters of her day. Assiduously frequenting the Uffizi, she fell in love with and copied the great masters of the past such as Botticelli and Jordaens.
In the Tuscan capital, a city with a very varied artistic culture, Elisabeth kept faith with herself alone, pursuing a unique style of her own and considering herself a pupil almost exclusively of the great artists of the past.
She painted her first masterpieces between the ages of fifteen and twenty. Initially influenced by Impressionist painting (for instance, in such works as Children in the Sunl and Family Portrait, both dated 1906), her brushwork soon became broader and more fluid, her palette more glowing, and her figures began to stand out in greater contrast thanks to the light striking them from below. Naturalism had all but disappeared and everything was redolent of Symbolism, yet at the same time the recurrent theme in her work was the human figure, based chiefly on the members of her family: her mother and sister, her brother and even her dog. Giuliano Serafini writes: “The abiding sensation left by the painting of Elisabeth Chaplin, in a prodigiously prolific career which stretched out over more than sixty years, is that of a watershed between two kinds of figurative culture: her maternal, French culture absorbed by zeitgeist into her first Italian period (1910–20), and the Italian, Florentine culture rediscovered almost through a revival of Neoplatonic nostalgia, in the heart of the Paris Salons (1920–30 and beyond) when she subscribed to the gospel of Art Deco.[1]
She showed her work in all the major Italian exhibitions between 1910 and 1914, starting with the Società delle Belle Arti in 1910, the Internazionale di Valle Giulia in Rome in 1911, the Promotrice Fiorentina in 1912, the Secessione Romana in 1913 and the Venice Biennale in 1914.
In 1911 she moved to Villa Il Treppiede in the hills of Fiesole, where she was to spend the rest of her life apart from twenty years in Paris, and where she was to set an extensive series of successful paintings.
In 1916 she followed her family to Rome, where she came into contact with the vibrant, international cultural climate and where she consolidated her reputation as an international painter. She began to show her work at the Paris Salon in 1920 and her immense success prompted her to move to the French capital in 1922. She was to live there until the end of World War II.
While in Paris she drank in the city’s international spirit, going to the Panthéon and the Hotel de Ville to study the work of Symbolist painter Puvis de Chavannes, she was awarded major public commissions to paint large murals in the churches of Notre-Dame du Salut and Saint Esprit, and she won the gold medal at the Exposition Internationale in 1937. She was awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 1938.
Yet it was precisely in Paris that she rediscovered Italian art and developed a mystical style midway between the Nabis and the Pre-Raphaelites. Serafini writes: “Not resembling anyone has always been Elisabeth’s motto and her programme”.
She returned to Florence at the end of the war, continuing to paint intensely and receiving numerous commissions in the 1950s for civic and religious buildings in the city, culminating in an anthological exhibition devoted to her work at the Institut français de Florence in 1965.
The painting under discussion in this paper, Two Nudes or Double Self-portrait, painted at Villa Il Treppiede in c. 1918, is one of the few works that escaped the purchase of a substantial corpus of her paintings by the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Palazzo Pitti a few years before she died. It may rightly be considered one of her few masterpieces still present on the market.
Elisabeth depicts herself in a dual position, front and back, as she grips a red sheet that is mischievously sliding off her naked body. The camouflage disappears, physical resemblance gives way to Symbolist features that transcend purely naturalistic portrayal. Her chiaroscuro is violent, her light incandescent, typically striking the figure from below, her palette is bright with reds and blues meeting and clashing. An exotic air hangs about her long, black hair and about the red sheet that so closely resembles a pareo. It is for this very reason that Serafini concludes his description of the painting by stating that “never so much as in this unwitting tribute to Gauguin, which remains one of her most fascinating and emblematic pictures, is the nude conveyed with such fullness of style and truth.[2].
Some of Elisabeth’s great masterpieces are to be found in public collections, such as her very first painting, a Self-portrait with a Green Umbrella painted in 1903 and part of the Uffizi’s collection of self-portraits formerly in the Vasari Corridor, while a considerable number of major paintings were snapped up a few years before her death by the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Palazzo Pitti, which has devoted an entire room to her work.

[1] G. Serafini, Elisabeth Chaplin. Disegni, Edizioni Polistampa, Florence, 1997, p. 11.

[2] G. Serafini, Elisabeth Chaplin. Tre stagioni di simboli, Edizioni Polistampa, Florence, 1994, p. 132.

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