A drawing in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V & A) at London by Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) penned 1762 – 1766 is believed to be of the French drawing master considered one of the most original architectural draughtsmen in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Europe Charles Louis Clérisseau (1721 – 1820).
He is known to have drawn ruined buildings in Rome, Naples, Paestum and various places in Italy and he was a friend to key figures in history, instrumental in introducing and promoting the emergence of what is known now as the neoclassical style.
He was vital and important link in the chain of architectural excellence that prevailed during the 18th and 19th centuries in England and Europe, perhaps more than anyone realized for some time.
Clérisseau studied himself under the acclaimed teacher of architects French master architect Jaques-François Blondel (1705-1774) and after winning the Prix de Rome in 1746, with the painter and architect Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765),
Clérisseau’s skill or gift was one of communication
A youthful Scottish born, and later London based neoclassical architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) left Scotland in 1754 aged 26 with Charles Hope, Lord Hopetoun’s brother.
His intention was of studying and learning about architecture while completing a grand tour of the continent with his friend.
While Hope was enjoying himself at leisure, once they arrived at Rome Robert Adam began seriously thinking about his career.
He wrote ‘If I am known in Rome to be an architect, if I am seen drawing or with a pencil in my hand, I cannot enter into genteel company who will not admit an artist or, if they do admit him, will very probably rub affronts on him in order to prevent his appearing at their card-playing, balls and concerts’.
Clearly in turmoil with himself and his ambitions, his father being a notable architect in Scotland, Adam had to sort it out.
In Florence he was introduced to Charles Clérisseau by the pre-eminent sculptor Sir Joseph Wilton.
The meeting would change his life. He further recorded he had to decide ‘Shall I lose Hope and my introduction to the great, or shall I lose Clérisseau and my taste for the grand?’
He and Hope parted company. His meeting with Clérisseau had changed the course of Adam’s Grand Tour, and indeed, his journey in life as well.
Up until Adam’s time no British architect had been in Italy with the intention of studying its domestic architectural forms from the past.
He made a special study of the painted and stuccoed interiors of ancient Rome by artists such as Raphael and Giorgio Vasari.
Adam was a student, explorer, architect and grand tourist all rolled into one.
After him the presence of British artists and architects in Rome became more common.
Adam took Charles Clérisseau into his employ as his professional tutor, guide and companion and his presence in Adam’s life for the next two years while he was resident at Rome.
Adam wrote: ‘I hope to have my ideas greatly enlarged and my taste formed upon the solid foundation of genuine antiquity’.
Clérisseau agreed to ‘…serve him as an antiquarian…to teach perspective and drawing and give him copies of all studies of the antique, bas-reliefs and other ornaments’.
As Adam noted of Clérisseau, ‘he rais’d my ideas, he created emulation and fire in my Breast, I wish’d above all things to learn his manner and to have him with me at Rome, to study close with him and to purchase of his works’.
Adam also met Giambattista Piranesi (1720-1778) with whom he would share a grand passion.
In Naples Robert Adam with Clérisseau examined the newly excavated ruins at Pompeii and Herculaneum.
He also admired the sculptures, frescoes, mosaic pavements and architectural remains, domestic utensils and food being uncovered. And he was just as moved and captivated by it as visitors are today.
Back at Rome Adam was also introduced to Cardinal Albani.
He was instrumental in granting Robert the necessary permissions needed so that he could continue sketching, drawing, making models of ornament in castles, palazzos and churches all over Italy.
Clérisseau then accompanied Adam on his journey to the remains of Diocletian’s palace at Spalato where he helped him to invest in the whole future of style through knowledge.
Within five weeks at Spalato Adam under Clerisseau’s influence, collected enough material to be reproduced in 1764 in Adam’s great Folio presented to George III – The Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalato in Dalmatia.
Clérisseau designed these marvellous panels for a salon in the Parisian house of fermier general Laurent Grimod de la Reyniére.
They told the story of the Greek hero Achilles and he painted them at Paris in the 1770’s.
It used motifs from classical and Renaissance grotesques, a popular form of decoration during the 1780’s and 90’s that became integral to the elements of the Neoclassical style that Robert Adam championed.
They are also now in the V & A at London.
Everyone of note from this time, in the worlds of art and design seems to have met Clérisseau.
His influence spread much farther than Europe and in 1760 he designed a Ruin Room at the convent of S. Trinita dei Monti near the top of the Spanish steps.
The furniture was designed to look like classical fragments, the desk in the form of a damaged sarcophagus, a piece of cornice as a table, a capital for a seat, and a broken vase as a basket for a dog.
This illusionistic interior exercise was much admired.
Clérisseau visited the Maison Carée at Nimes in 1787 with the future American president, Thomas Jefferson and architect Charles Cameron, who later became the designer for Catherine the Great of Russia and was recommended to the Empress by him.
He also advised Thomas Jefferson on decorations for the State Capitol in Virginia between 1785-1789.
Today through investigation by such as American author and historian Thomas McCormick, Charles-Louis Clérisseau is now known to have helped to disseminate information for those reimagining the beginning of the modern world.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, Feb 2013 updated 2015