A talented student at the École des beaux-arts, Georges Clairin would become a leading personality of Belle-époque Paris while also developing a lifelong passion for Orientalist art. His interest in this exotic genre was shared with fellow artist, Henri Regnault, a Rome Prize recipient, who would become Clairin’s best friend, travelling companion and inspirational figure. Following Clairin’s Salon debut in 1866, he accompanied Regnault to Spain, where both painters became interested in Moorish architecture. From Spain they travelled to Italy, where they met Jean Léon Gérôme and Mariano Fortuny, the leading figure of the Spanish Orientalist school. Surrounded by the two major proponents of Orientalism, it is not surprising that their next destination was Morocco; they made their first trip in December 1869, keen on discovering the Ancient civilization and its customs. As the two painters approached the coast of Morocco, the bright and sun-drenched city of Tangier stood tall on the hill over-looking the Mediterranean Sea. They immediately fell in love with the mysterious city for its light, color, fragrance and shimmering fabrics. Caught up in the intoxication of this exotic land, they purchased a house overlooking the souk, which they transformed into a “small Palace” and set up a studio: “We painted the doors turquoise and adorned the walls with colorful panels […]. The locks [were] covered with the silver paper from our chocolate bars. […] We hung Oriental textiles and rugs here and there.” (Georges Clairin, Les Souvenirs d’un peintre, 1906, p.120). Clairin and Regnault were following in the footsteps of Eugène Delacroix forty years earlier and like Delacroix became seduced by this “land of beautiful orange trees covered with flowers and fruit, of the beautiful sun, of the beautiful eyes and a thousand other beauties.” (Eugène Delacroix, written during his voyage to North Africa in 1832).
Unfortunately, their Moroccan dream life ended abruptly when the Franco-Prussian war broke out and forced them to return to France. Sadly, Regnault died at the battle of Buzenval in 1871. To ease his sorrow, Clairin, who still longed for more travel expeditions, returned to Morocco in 1871 with the painter, Benjamin-Constant. His painting Massacre des Abencérages à Grenade (Rouen Museum of Art), purchased by the French state after the Salon of 1874, is emblematic of Clairin’s orientalist work and his interest in Ancient civilizations. Representing an Andalusian legend in all its sensuality and drama, this painting owes its heritage to Clairin’s many years traveling abroad, which filled his life with artistic inspiration and meaningful friendships.
When not travelling to Italy, Spain or North Africa, Clairin was actively involved in various French public commissions as well as capturing the glamorous life of Paris, as shown in his portraits of his close friend Sarah Bernhardt. Known as “The Divine Sarah”, Sarah Bernhardt became a symbol of, if not an ambassador, for France worldwide. Clairin entered the intimate world of this fascinating celebrity, whom he painted in her stage roles as well as in informal settings. His 1876 portrait was especially well received at the Salon, as Théodore Véron pointed out: “The portrait of Madame Sarah Bernhardt is clearly one of the most fascinating works of the Salon for the originality of its composition and its splendid colors.” (Théodore Véron, Le salon de 1876: mémorial de l'art et des artistes de mon temps, 1876). No other artist captured the flamboyant personality of the actress with so much virtuosity. Together, they travelled to Belle-Île, an island off the coast of Brittany. Succumbing to the charms of the landscape, Sarah immediately bought a former military fort on the Pointe des Poulains where she set up a studio for Clairin.
A long life, well-lived, Clairin was truly a multi-faceted and eclectic artist - an Orientalist, a portraitist and even at times a Symbolist; he was as comfortable seated in front of an easel as he was climbing on scaffoldings to paint murals for France’s emblematic monuments, including the Paris Opera, the Sorbonne, and many theaters in Paris, Cherbourg and Tours. He was awarded the Silver Medal at the Exposition universelle in 1889 and made Officer of the Legion of Honor in 1897. Clairin died in 1919 on Belle-île.