My artist today is the prolific late eighteenth century French painter Louis-Léopold Boilly, who was best known for his genre scenes featuring life in the French capital during the French Revolution and the French Empire. He is also renowned for his revolutionary use of lithography.
Boilly was born on July 5th 1761 in La Bassée, a commune in the Nord department of northern France, sixty kilometres south-east of Calais. His father was wood carver and it was he, who gave Léopold his first lessons in art, and soon during his early teens young Boilly was producing many good works of art, a fact that came to the attention of the Austin friars at the monastery in Douai, a town close to his home. By 1774, word of Boilly’s artistic talent reached the bishop of Arras, Monseigneur Louis François Marc Hilaire de Conzié, who offered him a place to live and paint in Arras.
Also around this time, living and working in Arras, was the Flemish-born artist Guillaume-Dominique-Jacques Doncre, who made a living from painting portraits of the members of the Conseil of Arras and members of the local aristocracy but who also specialised in trompe-l’oeil paintings. It is thought that maybe Léopold Boilly studied under Doncre as the young artist developed a liking for trompe l’oeil works.
Trompe l’oeil, (French for “deceive the eye) is a style of painting invented by the ancient Greeks whereby the artist creates an illusion of space often showing apparently three dimensional objects and spaces in a way which the eye accepts as realism in the context of their surroundings. It was particularly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Low Countries and Northern France. This trompe l’oeil by Dominique Doncre, above was completed in 1785. At first sight it looks like a collection of items set out randomly on his “noticeboard”. Two horizontal straps seem to be holding the items in place including what looks like an engraved page featuring the artist himself and we know it is Doncre as the words “ego sum pictor (I am the painter) are beneath the portrait. On a card below the pair of spectacles, he has also signed and dated the painting. It is a simple work with no hidden message.
Léopold Boilly completed several trompe l’oeil paintings of his own and my favourite is one with a cat gazing through a hole in the canvas caused by a log which has pierced it. On the top bottom of which are fish hanging from the stretcher.
In 1785, aged twenty-four, Boilly went to live in Paris and there, two years later, he married Marie-Madeleine Desligne, the daughter of a merchant of Arras. In 1787 Boilly received a lucrative commission. The nobleman and lawyer, Antoine Joseph François Xavier Calvet de Lapalun had decided to refurbish his family residence in Avignon and he was advised by one of his former clients to incorporate an art collection into the re-modelling of the large house and at the same time arranged for his friend a number of introductions with some of the most influential Parisian art dealers who would be able tosell him the finest works of art. One of the artists chosen to provide works for the residence was Léopold Boilly. The former client, the Marquis Alexandre de Tulle de Villefranche, gave Calvet de Laupin a present of two of Boilly’s works, La Visite reçue and La Visite rendue. Calvet de Laupin was so pleased with the works that he commissioned Boilly to complete a further nine genre paintings of the same ilk.
All eleven genre works featured the many facets of love, all of which are set in an upper-middle class milieu. The people depicted in the various scenes look as if they are actors appearing in a stage play. These were not, unlike Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode, an eleven-episode story. Each were simply variations on the theme of love and left the viewer to decide what was happening in the painting. The setting of the two works I have included had been dictated to Boilly by Tulle de Villefranche while Calvet de Lapalun himself described the settings he wanted for the final seven works.
In 1790 Boilly completed a work entitled The Suitor’s Gift. In it we see a beautiful, elegantly dressed young woman looking out at us knowingly as she receives the attentions of a suitor. He is obviously a very generous suitor for on the table in front of the young woman we see a luxurious gift box which lies open. It had been lovingly wrapped, as we see several strands of pink ribbon lying over the side which had once secured the gift. In the box and resting on the front edge of it are two white roses and this presumably symbolises the young lady’s innocence and adolescence. The young woman’s face is flushed and it is this and her full and rounded cheeks that suggests she is very young, certainly in comparison to her much older suitor.
Her hair is worn loosely and is softly curled with a pink ribbon tied around the crown of her head. Her clothes are elegant and lady-like. She is attired in a graceful pink corseted gown over which is a thin gauze overskirt, which still allows us to see the colour of the gown. She stares out at us and by doing so turns away from her suitor. Is it coyness we are witnessing or is she taking in what she has just been given. Maybe she is deciding whether the gift meets with her expectations.
Her prospective beau, whom we can just make out in the background shadows, crouches down at the side of the table. Is he kneeling in a kind of devout reverence? Look at his expression. It is one of a man who is keenly awaiting to find out whether his gift had been well received by the young woman. It would appear by the way his left hand is grasping a crucifix which he wears around his neck that he is looking for divine help in his quest to please the lady. From the demeanour of the pair we get a feel for the relationship. Look how the woman smiles. It is a knowing smile. She knows she has the upper hand in this partnership. Maybe it is this thought that makes us revise our opinion of her. Maybe she is not as innocent and vulnerable as we first thought. At first sight we felt a little pity for her being pestered by an elderly man but maybe it is he whom we should be pitying for it seems she may well play him for a fool!
Boilly’s reputation as an artist who artistically recorded contemporary life in the French capital steadily grew and by often having his paintings on display at various exhibitions he ensured the public would not forget him. Boilly began exhibiting his work at the Salon in 1791, which was the first year it was open to all artists, previously the exhibition was only open to the work of recent graduates of the École des Beaux-Arts but control of the Salon was taken away from the Academy by the National Assembly, which ordered the exhibition opened to all artists.
In 1798 Boilly put forward his painting Gathering of Artists in the Studio of Isabey for exhibition at that year’s Salon. This genre of multi-figure or group portraits was popular with many Dutch and British artists and in this work of fiction, Boilly has imagined what it would have been like if all the young aspiring artists of the time had met up at the studio of his contemporary the French artist Jean-Baptiste Isabey, who we see dressed in red standing behind the man sitting at the easel. The studio’s classical decoration is the work of architects Percier and Fontaine whom we see depicted standing on the left.
Boilly regularly exhibited at the Salon until 1824 and he received a gold medal at the Salon of 1804 for his painting Arrival of the Stagecoach. The work depicts a major event in Parisian life – the daily arrival of a stagecoach in the crowded courtyard of the Messageries in rue Montmartre (which is now Rue Notre-Dame-des-Victoires). This was a place where stagecoaches converged from all over France and Europe in the early 19th century. In the painting, we see the stagecoach is in the parking space reserved for coaches coming from northern France and Belgium, indicated by the inscription on the wall.
This is an interesting study of Parisian life. Boilly has depicted a throng of people some of whom are waiting to board the stagecoach. By their attire, we can see the various social classes. At the centre of the painting we see a bourgeois being welcomed by his wife; on the left-hand side, we see a soldier with his arm around a flower seller or maybe she is a maid from the local hostelry, who by the way she is ignoring him, has only eyes for the well-dressed military officer with the plumed hat to her left. Unfortunately for her, he is totally disinterested in her. There is still one passenger, an elderly lady, sitting in the coach. Maybe she is awaiting assistance to help her debark, maybe someone was supposed to be there to meet her but has not arrived.
The young delivery men can be seen on top of and at the side of the coach helping to unload packages which have been brought in by the coach. We see another by the side of the military officer almost brought to his knees by the weight of the case he is carrying on his shoulder. He was a portefaix, an old term for a porter. These workers were known as gagne-deniers, unskilled workers, often peasants from the countryside who have come to the city to earn a living and often were paid a mere pittance. Now look at the characters on the far right of the painting. The man is the epitome of elegance albeit bordering on being a dandy. The lady with him has a pug on a leash, which was at the time the height of fashion. The little girl standing with them has turned her back on them and seems totally disinterested in the adult conversation.
Boilly continually showed an interest in the bustling life of Paris and in this work and others he highlighted the developing role of transport in the early 19th century with the Napoleonic wars and the development of capitalism. This painting which describes an everyday urban event, a scene which falls within the domain of genre painting which, at the time and in view of the Paris Salon academicians was considered inferior to history painting. Despite that, the work won the gold medal at the Salon in 1804 and was ultimately acquired by the Louvre in 1845.
Boilly was thirty-three at the height of the Reign of Terror period during the French Revolution in 1794. He was a half-hearted supporter of the Revolution, and that year he was denounced to the Société Républicaine des Arts by a fellow artist, the Jacobin fanatic Jean-Baptiste Wicar, for having painted “obscene works revolting to republican morality.” He was condemned by the Committee of Public Safety for these erotic undertones and for the frivolity of his work as well as his penchant for depicting the bourgeois in his early paintings. He was saved from literally a “fate worse than death” when his accusers searched his home and found his overtly flattering painting of Jean-Paul Marat, Triumph of Marat, the rabble-rousing radical journalist and politician and hero of the Revolution. Although Boilly survived the incident, his wife died during these anxious times. Boilly remarried in 1795.
In 1822 Boilly completed a painting entitled The Movings which highlighted the plight of the poor. In the painting, we see several families, who were unable to pay rent, and so were forced to move out of their homes with their belongings and travel the streets of Paris in search of new shelter. The painting depicts a palpable tension of a social drama and Boilly has created this by adding the opposing constituents in the setting. In the left background, we see the mirage-like image of the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Rome. Most of the figures in the work appear to be moving away from the Roman church. However, the owners of the front wagon, possibly a lowly and poor family that appears to have come from outside the city in search of work, move towards the distant mirage of the church and it is this connection that suggests that the arriving family’s search for a better financial future will prove futile, as well-paid job opportunities, like the church, are just an illusion. This was how Boilly saw life at that juncture of time.
Boilly was not only a fine artist but he was also a fine businessman and all through his career, he could change his artistic style to coincide with what was popular at the time with the public and made money by selling engraved reproductions of his genre paintings. One of the strangest form of his art was his depiction of grimacers. Grimacer is the French word meaning “to pull a face” and it fascinated Boilly, who produced many amusing works focused on the grimacers. The lithograph above, Les Amateurs de Tableaux (Lovers of Paintings) is part of his collection Recueil de Grimacers (Collection of Grimacers). In the painting, we see several grotesque looking characters, open-mouthed, brows furrowed as they concentrate on a small painting, some peering through monocles and spectacles. It was thought that Boilly was poking fun at the so-called “amateur art connoisseurs”.
In other similar works, the artist made many studies of facial expressions and the result was humorous but often cruel caricatures of contemporary society. In his lithograph, Les Grimacers, he even included himself (top left)
Boilly was a talented portrait artist and received many lucrative commissions for his portraits. It is said that he completed more than five thousand portraits during his lifetime. One of my favourites is one he completed around 1799 entitled The Artist’s Wife in His Studio, which featured his wife.
In the 1820’s Boilly was one of the first French artists to experiment with lithography to reproduce his paintings. He last exhibited at the Salon in 1824 and in the spring of 1828 he sold his collection of Dutch, Flemish, and French paintings and decorative objects, as well as thirty-seven of his own paintings. The monarchy of Louis-Philippe awarded him the cross of the Légion d’honneur in 1833. He died in Paris on January 4th 1845 aged eighty-four. His youngest son, Alphonse Boilly was a professional engraver who apprenticed in New York.