In Victorian Era Philadelphia, there were many high and prominent people that were feted as a “Patron of the Arts”. These were wealthy members of society who gave support, encouragement, and most importantly, financial backing to both up and coming artists and established artisan for the benefit and enrichment of society (which often meant upper class society, since much of the great art was inaccessible to the poorer masses). Patrons, though, did not always give their wealth just because of an innate artistic altruism; they would receive great acclaim and renown in their own right for their arts patronage, and, often times, they were repaid by the artists in ways that would give them a permanent place in the arts world. One such Patron was a French-born Philadelphian named Bertrand Gardel.
Born in Paris in 1806, Bertrand Gardel rose in Philadelphia society as a Professor of French who was known for spending his money on a number of artistic works. It was in this capacity that a man named Benjamin Eakins came to him and asked to tutor his son in the French language. In doing so, Bertrand Gardel met a young man who would eventually become known as the greatest artist Philadelphia produced in the 19th Century – Thomas Eakins. Gardel and the Eakins became friends, and, being the “patron” he was, Bertrand took a strong interest in Thomas’s artistic career, giving encouragement and money to young Thomas. As the artistic relationship grew with the Eakins, a sad event in Gardel’s life would eventually lead to Thomas Eakin’s fulfilled maturity as an artist.
In 1859 Bertrand Gardel’s wife died in Damascus, Syria while on a World Tour. Brought home to Philadelphia, a grieving Bertrand determined to give her what he perceived as a fitting memorial. Drawing on the example the tomb of world famous Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova (who had designed his own mausoleum), and using the talents of noted Philadelphia architect Napoleon LeBrun and Belgian sculptor Guillaume Geefs, Gardel had created a 25 foot pyramid at his wife’s grave, using classic mourning sculpture to ring the base. It is widely believed that he also got involved Thomas Eakins in the project - it is definite that it was the first exposure Eakins had to the sculpture form of art – one that he had never been closely associated with. The effect was profound, and Eakins wanted to learn more on this to further his art.
The monument was completed and erected in 1865 at the cost of $30,000 (a cost of a $422,238 in today’s money). The next year Thomas Eakins was sent to Paris to study arts there, a trip encouraged and financed by Gardel. He stayed in France from 1866 to 1870, learning art, human anatomy and sculpture under a number of the best teachers in the country. While there, he would send back to his financial mentor the latest Parisian newspapers, and the latest gossip from French society. The results of Eakin’s study in France would mature his skill in portraying the human body in motion and detail, which he did through the rest of his career on canvas and photography to great acclaim and often great controversy. In thanks to his mentor, a few years after his return to Philadelphia he had a gift to give back to his “Patron of the Arts”.
In 1876 Eakins painted an oil on wood panel work called “The Chess Players”. Situated in a typical upper class Victorian parlor, the painting shows three men, an older man on the left with the white pieces, a younger man on the right with the black, and an elderly man in the middle watching the progress of the game. Eakins chose his subjects well for this work. The man in the middle is his father, Benjamin Eakins, the man on the right playing the black pieces is a fellow artist, George Holmes. Playing the black pieces, permanently crouched over the board, is Patron of the Arts Bertrand Gardel, the man whose money, support and encouragement gave to Eakins was now fulfilled. Eakins thanked Gardel the best way he knew how - by forever immortalized him in what is considered a classic painting.
Bertrand Gardel eventually retired from his Professorship, and lived until in Philadelphia until his death in December 1883. He was buried with his wife at the massive pyramid monument he created for her in Philadelphia’s Mount Vernon Cemetery, where the sculptures still stand today tall despite the weeds, trees and neglect that sprout around it today.
Today “The Chess Players” can be viewed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, New York.