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Sterling, Charles

    Full Name: Sterling, Charles

    Other Names:

    • Charles Jacques, pseudonym

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1901

    Date Died: 1991

    Place Born: Warsaw, Masovian Voivodeship, Poland

    Place Died: Paris, Île-de-France, France

    Home Country/ies: Poland

    Subject Area(s): fifteenth century (dates CE), French (culture or style), and painting (visual works)

    Career(s): curators and educators


    Louvre curator of painting and major scholar of French 15th-century art; New York University professor. Sterling was born to a Jewish family in Poland of Scottish decent. He studied law in Poland and was admitted to the bar as a lawyer. His uncle, who owned one of the most successful galleries in Warsaw, instilled an interest in art in him. Sterling married and moved to Paris in 1925 determined now to be an art historian. He studied at the Ecole du Louvre under Gaston Brière and at the Sorbonne under Henri Focillon, who he considered his master. His initial area of study during these years was 16th-century Netherlandish landscape painting. After concluding his studies in 1928, he joined the Louvre Museum in the Département des Peintures in 1929 under Paul Jamot assignrd to assist René Huyghe in a new edition of Huyghe’s Delacroix catalog. He was soon put in charge of producing all the Louvre’s catalogs. His research focus necessarily changed to French painting. Under Jamot and Huyghe, he researched catalogs for the Louvre exhibitions, including Degas, 1931 and Chassériau, 1933. He became a French citizen in 1934. That year he and Jamot mounted the exhibition at the Orangerie, Peintres de la éalité en France au XViie siècle. The exhibition caused a re-evaluation of French 17th-century painting, revealing Georges de la Tour as major figure and bringing to fore the work of the Le Nain, among others. Further catalogs included Art Italien, Cézanne, and Rubens et son temps, all 1936. Around 1937, Sterling began an interest in the so-called French Primitives, which was to result in his life’s work. The first of his two serious surveys on the topic appeared in 1938 as La peinture française: les primitifs. When Paris fell to the Nazi’s in 1940, Jews such as himself were forbidden by law to hold official positions in France. Despite the Polish consulate in Marseilles offering to certify his as “Aryan,” Sterling declined the deceit in solidarity with other Jews. The second volume in his primitives research appeared in 1941, published under a pseudonym to hide his Jewish heritage. He eventually fled to the United States where he was attached to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through the auspices of the director, Francis Henry Taylor. As a curator, he once convinced the colorful mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947), who happened to be attending a Met acquisitions meeting, to vote for the acquisition of a Francois Clouet painting simply because the subject had been a mayor. Sterling wrote the three-volume catalog of the French paintings for the Met and taught his first classes in art history. He returned to the Louvre in 1945, but remained partially on the Met staff until 1955. The Orangerie exhibition Natur Morte in 1952 led to his seminal book on the genre of still lives in art. Sterling was asked by Nikolaus Bernard Leon Pevsner to write a volume in the Pelican History of Art series on 15th-century European art outside Great Britain and Italy. He mounted the Louvre Poussin retrospective with Anthony Blunt in 1960. Sterling retired from the Louvre in 1968, accepting an appointment to teach at New York University at the Institute of Fine Arts the following year. An interview was filmed with him for French television in 1989 (released 1991). He died after a long illness at age 89. At his death he bequeathed his 12,155 books and 38,000 photographs to the Département. His text for the Pelican volume was substantially complete, but never published. Following his death, the Louvre mounted an exhibition, “Homage to Charles Sterling” to commemorate the numerous important paintings in the museum which his scholarship had advanced. Sterling undertook the first art historical analysis of French painting of the late Middle Ages. Using the method of connoisseurship developed by Giovanni Morelli, he mapped pictures by particular traits of the artist and then matched these to documented artists. He put artist’s names to many of the great late-medieval paintings in the Louvre, such as Enguerrand Quarton, the painter of the spectacular “Avignon Pieta,” and Jean Hey for the Maitre de Moulins, a major artist of the 1480’s. Establishing the output for the many anonymous French Primitives and codifying their artistic personality (characteristics of the individual artist) placed Sterling a a par to what Bernard Berenson did for Italy or Max J. Friedländer for the Low Countries (Laclotte). His Peintres de la éalité en France au XViie siècle with its bibliography and notes, became a hallmark for exhibition catalogs (reprinted in toto in 2006). His method, like his colleague and friend Roberto Longhi, was in part to compare photographs of details to corroborate art-historical conclusions. “Sterling pioneered the study of still life as an autonomous mode of painting that could take a high rank on its own merits” (Russell).

    Selected Bibliography

    [bibliography to 1973:] Études d’art français offerts à Charles Sterling Châtelet, Albert, and Reynaud, Nicole. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1975, pp. 13-22; La peinture française: les primitifs. Paris: Librairie Floury, 1938; [under the pseudonym, Charles Jacques:] Les Peintres du Moyen Age. Paris, 1941; La nature morte de l’antiquité à nos jours. Paris: P. Tisné, 1952, English, rev. ed. Still Life Painting from Antiquity to the Present Time. New York, Universe Books, 1959; A Catalogue of French Paintings [at the Metropolitan Museum of Art]. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Harvard University Press, 1955-1967; La peinture médiévale à Paris: 1300-1500. 2 vols. Paris: Bibliothèque des Arts, 1987ff.


    Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, p. 42; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, no. 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, p. 43 mentioned; Bazin, Germain. Histoire de l’histoire de l’art: de Vasari à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 1986, pp. 485-486; Orangerie, 1934: les “peintres de la éalité”: Exposition au musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Paris: éunion des musées nationaux, 2006; [obituaries:] Laclotte, Michel. “Charles Sterling.” Burlington Magazine 133, no. 1057 (Apr., 1991): 252; Russell, John. “The Louvre Honors A Patron Saint Of French Painting.” New York Times May 17, 1992, section 2, p. 29; Wildenstein, Daniel. Gazette des Beaux-Arts ser6 no. 117 (April 1991): [“Chronique des arts”] 26; Chatelet, Albert. Bulletin Monumental 150 no. 1 (1992): 49-54; Scott, Barbara. “Homage to Charles Stirling [sic].” Apollo 136 (July 1992): 50-1; Charles Sterling: un cahasseur dans la nuit médiévale [film]. Richard Copans, director, 1991; Haskell, Francis. The Ephemeral Museum: Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000, p. 137ff.


    "Sterling, Charles." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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