Born in 1843, Clairin entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1861, where he studied with François Picot and Isidore Pils. He sent the first of many contributions to the Salon in 1866. By 1868, he had joined his good friend, the painter Henri Regnault, in a visit to Spain, where he was enormously impressed by Moorish architecture and influenced by the Spanish Orientalist painter Mariano Fortuny y Marsal. From Spain, Clairin and Regnault traveled to Tangier, where Clairin made a close study of local costume and constructed a house and studio in partnership with Regnault. In subsequent years, Clairin made numerous trips to Spain, Morocco and Egypt, and quickly became one of the pillars of the Salon de la Société Orientaliste.
Obsessed with the lavish and mesmerizing glamour of Moorish countries, Clairin also ran in a glamorous crowd at home in Paris. One of his most significant relationships was with the legendary actress and Renaissance woman Sarah Bernhardt. Clairin was Bernhardt’s devoted friend for fifty years and remained her portraitist of choice throughout her illustrious career. His portraits of her, whether in costume or informally in her apartment, are some of his most evocative works. Clairin exhibited at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Françaises almost every year since his debut. He became a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1887 and in 1889, was awarded a silver medal at the Paris Exposition Universelle. Clairin’s paintings are housed in some of the most prestigious collections in the world and rank among the most celebrated Orientalist works of all time.