One-hundred years before American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt created timeless images of mothers and children, there was Christina Chalon, a woman of rare artistic focus and incredible skill. Two of Chalon’s untitled genre works, on loan to the Crisp Visual Art Center at Culver Academies, reveal her skill as a printmaker, and, through a rare example, her artistic thinking process. Christina Chalon (1748-1808), was a prolific artist well respected by her contemporaries. Today, however, there are less than thirty images definitively believed to be by her hand. The rest, many by the artist Pieter de Mare (1757-1796), were, even in her lifetime, created from her drawings and sketches. All share the legacy of 17th century Dutch artist, Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685), whose genre scenes of common people in daily life still fascinate collectors of art. Chalon, like Cassatt after her, mainly focused on the domestic activities of mothers and children. The etchings on loan to the Crisp are, most likely, from her hand.
Born in Amsterdam, the daughter of Henry Chalon and Susanna van Bulligen, Christina’s propensity for drawing was clearly evident by age four. With a musician for a father, and her late grandfather, Louis Chalon (1687-1741), a renowned painter, the household was full of artists and musicians. In addition to drawing, Christina became musically competent in both voice and instrument. Though it might seem uncommon for 18th century parents to encourage a daughter to pursue a career, as the product of an artistic environment Christina lived under no such limitations. She began her formal training at age seven in the studio of Sara Troost, a relative, and later with the artist C. Ploos van Amstel. In time, Christina would gravitate toward a concentration in printmaking and develop an insightful and sensitive use of line and value, key components of the art of intaglio. Christina’s etchings, particularly her genre scenes of women and children, were destined to enter many Dutch collections.
The first of the prints on loan is a compact scene of delicate emotional content. A woman seated in a ladder-back chair sits in three-quarter-profile, holding an open book on her lap. She is facing four children of similar age, two boys and two girls. They surround her attentively as if listening to a story. The smallest of the four is walking toward the woman, dangling a hat in his hand. Another woman, holding a baby, looks on with a slight smile. The only indication regarding the possible content of the story exists in the faces of the children. Each face registers a degree of awareness bordering on sadness. One, a young girl at the extreme left, glances up at the viewer as she wipes a tear from her face. The smile of the woman looking on, though, indicates that all is well. The story has had its intended effect.
There are several recorded facts regarding Christina Chalon’s life. One is her marriage to the organist Christian Fredrick Ruppe, on March 4, 1784 at the age of thirty-six. As an organist, Ruppe held a post at Leiden University and would, one day, become Master of the Chapel. Christina continued her artistic practice after moving to Leiden with her husband, and it would be reasonable to expect Christina’s signature to reflect her position as a wife. Uncharacteristically, though, Christina Chalon continued to sign her works with a C.C. f. for Christina Chalon fecit (made this). This may seem like an act of a free spirit, but, more likely, the choice involved marketing. Unlike the newly wed Christina Ruppe, Christina Chalon came to the marriage with an established clientele. If the couple expected income from the sale of her prints and drawings, it would be wise not to undermine the customer’s perceptions.
The second image, a line engraving, also depicts a domestic scene of women and children. Here two women greet each other. One holds a basket, the other cradles a young child. Below them two children play. This plate is an early contour line proof, perhaps drawn in dry-point, describing the figures and a bit of the ground. It is a simple proof, printed to give the artist an opportunity to check the quality of the etched line and the chance to make adjustments. Close examination reveals the planned modifications Chalon made by hand in red pencil. These are areas in need of clarity and refinement. She intends to lower the chin on the woman holding the basket, darken the eyes and smile-lines of the woman with the child, and adjust the clothing worn by the children. After etching these lines into the plate, Chalon would print another proof in order to work out any possible shading.
One of the supreme ironies of life exists in artists who bring joy to others through their insight into a given subject, yet suffer denial, through some twist of fate, of the comforts they so eloquently reflect. Unfortunately, this occurs in the life of Christina Chalon. Christina and Christian’s marriage would remain childless. Christina miscarried eight months after her wedding and, then again, four and a half years later. In 1799, Christina Chalon, emotionally depleted, suffered a complete breakdown, descending, in the words of Dr. Th. J. Meijer, who wrote a monograph on Christian Ruppe, into “a state of madness.” Eventually, she would be committed to the “Nieuwenburg Improvement House” in Hazerswoude. She died there on December 13, 1808.
Testament to the high regard Christina’s contemporaries placed on her artistic output came in the months following the news of her death. With the contents of her studio listed for sale, all of the remaining etchings and drawings completely sold out. This is, perhaps, why a number of contour line proofs of Chalon’s prints exist. Few, however, have working adjustments. Prints so marked were often discarded once the adjustment was complete. Today, we owe a debt of gratitude to the individual who found value in preserving this particular proof. Its slight adjustments in red pencil reward our viewing with a small window into the brilliant mind of Christina Chalon.