Charles Bargue (1826 - 1883)


Very little is known of Bargue’s early life. He may have begun his career in lithography, following family tradition. In 1847, Bargue’s first light-hearted prints were published and by 1858, he was working in Paris for the prestigious printmaker Adolphe Goupil (1806-1893). It was undoubtedly at Goupil & Cie. that Bargue met Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Goupil’s son-in-law and a featured client of the firm. As Bargue gained experience and improved his technique, he was invited to make reductions of popular paintings, including those by Gérôme. Though there has been much speculation that Bargue was Gérôme’s student during this period, it is more likely that he worked alongside him in his studio. The two became friends and it is thought that they may have traveled together during one of Gérôme’s many expeditions to the Middle East; certainly, Bargue was taken with the region, as the subject matter of his artworks suggest.


In the mid-1860s, Bargue received the commission to be the lithographer for the Cours de dessin, a technical handbook for academic artists. Gérôme was to choose the casts and drawings to be used as models for the first two volumes, as well as the artists from whom Bargue would work. The Cours was completed in 1870, and Bargue turned again to his art. A painstakingly slow painter, his output was unusually small. However, those works that are attributed to his mature years exhibit a level of draughtsmanship and design that rivalled the best of his peers. In 1883, Goupil sold his masterpiece, The Chess Players, to William H. Vanderbilt (1821-1885) of New York for 75,000 francs. Tragically, in that same year, Bargue suffered both a stroke and an intensification of the bouts of madness he had long endured. He died a few months later in a Paris asylum for the insane.


Bargue’s reputation has been complicated by the longstanding confusion of his artworks with those of Gérôme, and by Gérôme’s overwhelming celebrity. The enduring popularity of the Cours, however – the favorite manual of both van Gogh and Picasso – has rescued Bargue’s name from obscurity. Today, his confirmed paintings and lithographs are avidly collected, and he is represented in museums worldwide, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


This biography was written by Emily M. Weeks, Ph.D.