Jean-Baptiste Oudry – animals and hunting scenes artist and so much more.

Jean-Baptiste Oudry, by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau.

My last nine blogs focused on female artists and in many cases their fight for equality and so, for this blog, I thought I better give the men a chance. I have gone back to the end of the seventeenth century to look at the work of a distinguished French artist whose painting genre was looked upon by the Academies of Europe as the lowest genre in the hierarchies of figurative art.
The hierarchy in figurative art was established in the wake of the Italian Renaissance for works in 16th century Italy by the prodigious Italian Academies in Rome and Florence and they were later ratified by all the major European Academies, such as the French Académie de peinture et de sculpture, which was one of the leading Art establishments of the time. The hierarchical list, the top genre being the most important in the eyes of the Academicians, was:

 History painting, including historically important, religious, mythological, or allegorical subjects
Portrait painting
Genre painting or scenes of everyday life.                                                               Landscape and cityscape art
Animal painting
Still life

This hierarchical listing was based on a division between art that made a cerebral effort to render visible the universal essence of things and that which merely consisted of mechanical copying of particular appearances. Basically, the list meant that Idealism was honoured and more favoured than Realism.

Let me introduce you to the Master of animal and still life painting, the French artist Jean-Baptiste Oudry. Oudry was born in Paris on March 17th, 1686, the youngest of three brothers. His father was Jacques Oudry, a painter, art dealer, and from 1706, the director of the Académie de St-Luc art school, which was the only serious competition to the more prestigious and influential Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. He was to give all his sons their initial art tuition. Jean-Baptiste’s mother was Nicole Oudry (née Papillon).

Self-portrait of Nicolas de Largillierre.(1707)

Jean-Baptiste Oudry began his artistic studies at the age of eighteen. In 1704, he first studied with the Marseilles-based Catalan-born French painter Michel Serre, a cousin of the portraitist Hyacinthe Rigaud. The following year Oudry began a five-year apprenticeship with the portrait painter, Nicolas de Largillierre whilst also enrolling in drawing classes at the Académie de St-Luc and the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris. Largilliere set Oudry the task to copy the works of the Flemish and Dutch schools of the seventeenth century. Through the teachings of Largillierre Oudry began to perfect his sense of colour and enhance his skills as a painter of still life and portraiture, both genres in which his master had rightly built up his reputation. In 1708 Oudry submitted a now-lost bust-length painting of Saint Jerome as his reception piece and this gained him the status of Master in the Académie de St-Luc.
Jean-Baptiste Oudry began giving art tuition to some students, one of whom was Marie-Marguerite Froissé, the daughter of a miroitier (a mirror-maker) and in 17o8 master and student married. The couple went on to have thirteen children, one of who, Jacques Charles Oudry, followed in his father’s footsteps and became a painter.

A still life of a swan by Jacques Charles Oudry (Oudry’s son)

After completing his apprenticeship, Oudry set up his own business and concentrated on portraiture commissions and still-life painting to earn money but times were hard so he tried to paint whatever was popular with the public. He wanted to create his own style of portraiture and not be seen as just copying the style of his former tutor, Nicolas de Largillierre, who was at the peak of his fame. Oudry’s clients were mostly of the modest bourgeoisie and the lesser nobility.

Abundance with her Attributes by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1719)

His financial predicament changed for the better in 1719 when thirty-three-year old Oudry was elected to membership of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (French Royal Academy) as a history painter with his reception work, Abundance with her Attributes. Although classed as a historical painting, look at the superbly painted surrounding array of fruits, vegetables, and animals. It was this talent for painting animals and still life objects that would make him famous. His main rival in this field of painting was Alexandre François Desportes, who at the start of the 18th century had been the principal painter of these genres in France.

Dead Wolf by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1721)

In 1721 Oudry completed pendant paintings Dead Wolf and Dead Roe which can be seen at the Wallace Collection in London. These masterpieces were followed by several large hunt pictures, the most notable of which was his large 1723 painting (almost five metres wide) entitled Stag Hunt which was his breakthrough work. It can now be seen at the Stockholm Royal Palace.

Fire of the Petit Pont by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1717)

It was around this time that Oudry reduced the number of portraiture commissions he accepted and concentrated on his still-life and hunting scenes which were beginning to become ever more popular. He even experimented with other genres such as landscapes and cityscapes as can be seen in his 1717 painting, Fire of the Petit Pont.

Le cheval fondu tapestry designed by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1730)

During the 1720s, Oudry’s paintings of animal and hunting scenes were looked upon as the best in France and through them he even managed to impress the French king, Louis XV. Royal patronage soon followed and from 1724 onwards, Oudry spent all his time creating royal commissions. Through his honoured royal patronage Oudry became the most visible artist at the Paris Salon of 1725 and the following March he was granted his own solo exhibition at the palace of Versailles. His exhibition was a great success and this along with his paintings at the Salon led to him being offered a position at the royal tapestry works at Beauvais in July 1726 where he became the painter of tapestry cartoons. In 1734 Oudry became director of the factory and shortly afterwards he employed François Boucher as factory painter and the collaboration between Oudry and Boucher was one of the reasons for the success of the Beauvais tapestry works in the eighteenth century. During this period Oudry’s painting output declined and it was this way until 1737.

Stag Hunt by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1723)

However, his work was in such great demand that he opened his own workshop which produced copies of his works for sale to the public. Between 1722 and 1725, Jean-Baptiste Oudry concentrated on his still-life and hunting scenes and would exhibit his works at the annual open-air Exposition de la Jeunesse which was held on Corpus Christie in the Place Dauphine and on the adjoining Pont Neuf in Paris which was the only public venue available to him.

Royal Hunts of Louis XV by Jean-Baptiste Oudry

The Salon in Paris was the official exhibition of art sponsored by the French government. It originated in 1667 when Louis XIV sponsored an exhibit of the works of the members of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. The exhibitions, to begin with, were not annual events, in fact they were quite sporadic with only one exhibition being held between 1704 and 1737 but from 1737 they became annual events. The Salon’s original focus was the display of the work of recent graduates of the École des Beaux-Arts and exhibiting one’s work at the Salon de Paris was vital for any artist to achieve success in France. Having one’s work in the Salon was tantamount to achieving royal favour and in the early days, before the inception of art dealers, it was the only way an artist had to sell their works. The return to annual exhibitions could be one of the reasons why in 1737 Oudry returned to painting and every year after, he would exhibit his works at the Salon.

Through his friend, Jean-Baptiste Massé, a portrait-painter and miniaturist, Oudry was introduced to Henri-Camille Marquis de Beringhen, Premier Ecuyer du Roi (Master of the King’s Private Stables), and organiser of the royal hunt, and he played a part in launching Oudry’s artistic career at court. He arranged for Oudry to have a studio and lodgings for himself and his family in the Tuileries Palace, so that he could work on royal commissions.

Misse and Turlu,Two Greyhounds Belonging to Louis XV by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1725)

Oudry’s hunting scenes were very much admired by Louis XV, and Oudry portrayed the king’s favourite royal hounds, Misse and Turlu, and painted scenes of the king riding to the hunt, which was the monarch’s sporting passion.

Henri Camille, Chevalier de Beringhen (1722)

Occasionally, Oudry painted portraits, one of which was of the twenty-nine-year old, Marquis de Beringhen. Once again, this painting is part portraiture and part still-life with dead game, a living animal, and a landscape. It typifies Oudry’s method of painting: the stylish elegance of the rococo style is combined with a perceptive sense of observation. We see the marquis sitting upon a knoll at the base of a tree. He is splendidly dressed in his linen shirt, a pale grey hunting coat lined with teal-blue velvet and trimmed with silver braid and buttons, breeches, and thigh-length boots. We see strands of his powdered hair swept back and tied with a black silk ribbon. He holds aloft a red-legged partridge in his left hand and with his right hand he strokes his faithful pointer. To the left, behind the dog we see lying on the ground a powder horn, fowling piece, game, and a game bag. To the right of the marquis, in the distance, we can just make out two women talking on the terrace of a country house, which may be pure idealization and just included as a befitting noble setting that Oudry had devised for the Marquis de Beringhen. Oudry once again highlights his artistic techniques in the way he depicts the lace of Beringhen’s shirt and the silver embroidery on his coat, and in the feathers of the partridge and the fur of the hound.

Grand Buffet, Still Life with Monkey, Fruit and Flowers by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1725)

Oudry soon broke Desportes’ royal monopoly and his work output grew. In 1725, the Paris Salon held an exhibition, the first since 1704, and Oudry submitted twelve pictures, including one entitled Grand Buffet but also known as Still Life with Monkey, Fruit and Flowers, which can be seen in the bottom right corner of the November 25th, 1725 edition of the French gazette and literary magazine Le Mecure de France.

Salon de 1725 as advertised in Le Mecure de France

In 1726 Oudry provided twenty-six paintings for an exhibition at Versailles. His other important acquaintance, Louis Fagon, the king’s Intendant des Finances, arranged for Oudry to become the painter to the royal tapestry works at Beauvais. This was to be the start of a new direction for Oudry who over the next decade designed a number of tapestry sets, including four pieces depicting Comedies of Molière, eight pieces based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and four panels depicting Fables of La Fontaine.

The Fables of La Fontaine – The Two Pigeons by Jean-Baptiste Oudry

Between 1729 and 1734, Jean-Baptiste Oudry produced a total of 276 beautiful and highly finished drawings, including a frontispiece, which illustrated tales from the famous 17th century work by Jean de La Fontaine, Les Fables choisies mises en vers (Selected Fables Rendered in Verse). Each of the scenes was drawn with the brush with black ink and grey wash, heightened with white gouache, on sheets of blue paper, with each image surrounded with a wide border brushed on the same sheet in a darker shade of blue, acting as a fictive mount. These drawings, all made during this five-year period have long been recognised as Oudry’s most famous works as a draughtsman.

Louis XV Stag Hunting in the Forest at Saint Germain-en-Laye by Jean Baptiste Oudry (1730)

In 1728 Oudry began on a royal commission Louis XV Stag Hunting in the Forest at Saint Germain-en-Laye. It was a massive painting, measuring 210 x 390cms. Louis XV was a keen and knowledgeable hunter who knew the name of every one of the dogs in the pack. This work was painted for the hunting pavilion in Marly, and again it is a combination of animal painting and landscape genres. Oudry depiction set in a clearing in the forest of Saint Germain, is the moment of the halloo, the cry or shout used to attract attention or to give encouragement to dogs in hunting.

A Wild Sow and her Young Attacked by Dogs by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1748)

Louis XV liked this work so much that, in 1733, he commissioned Oudry to produce three tapestry cartoons illustrating the hunts. The tapestries, woven under Oudry’s supervision at the Gobelins factory, were intended to decorate the king’s bedchamber and antechamber and the Council Chamber at the Château de Compiègne. In 1738, it was decided that the series should comprise nine cartoons; the last was completed by Oudry in 1746 and delivered to Gobelins. They made two sets of the tapestries. One set for the chateau at Compiègne and the other was sold to Philip, Duke of Parma, the King’s son-in-law.

Clara the Rhinoceros in Paris by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1749)

In the 1720s and 1730s, Jean-Baptiste Oudry established himself as the preeminent painter in France of hunts, animals, still lifes, and landscapes. His Painted Menagerie focused on a set of eleven life-size portraits of exotic animals from the royal menagerie at Versailles, painted by Oudry between 1739 and 1752. The paintings ultimately went into the ducal collection in Schwerin, Germany. The most famous of these is the splendid portrait of Clara, an Indian rhinoceros who had become a celebrity in mid-eighteenth-century Europe.  The Indian rhinoceros, who was born in Assam and had been named Clara, caused a sensation in Europe. A Dutch captain, Douwe Mout van der Meer, brought the three-year-old rhino in 1741. It was an animal that had never been seen before in Europe and he presented her at the Saint-Germain Fair in Paris, where she inspired many artists to undertake drawings and studies of her. Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s depiction of her is life size. The grand painting was shown at the Paris Salon in 1749 and acquired in 1750 by Duke Christian Ludwig II of Mecklenburg-Schwerin together with Oudry’s series of menagerie paintings. In all, there were approximately 57 drawings by him which ended up in the possession of the court in Schwerin.

Farmhouse by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1750)

Although Oudry is remembered for his animal and hunting scenes his idealized landscape work was of the highest quality. In 1750 the Dauphin, Louis, the elder son on Louis XV, commissioned Oudry to paint a picture of rural life which would highlight the bountiful and beauty of Ile-de-France and to promote the state’s progressive agricultural policy. Later the painting became known as The Farmhouse.

Jacques-Charles Oudry – Nature morte avec chien et le canard

Oudry was not a very wealthy man but lived comfortably. Oudry lost some of his responsibilities when Louis Fagon, the king’s Intendant des Finances, was replaced by Daniel-Charles Trudaine. Oudry suffered two strokes in quick succession in 1755. The second left him paralysed and he died shortly thereafter in Beauvais on April 30th, 1755, aged 69. He was buried in the Church of Saint-Thomas in Beauvais. His son, Jacques-Charles Oudry, trained by his father, was also an accomplished painter.

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John-Louis Ernest Meissonier – Part 2

The Siege of Paris in 1870 by Ernest Meissonier 1874

……………………Paris under siege, this time, not by its own people, but by the Prussians, as it was pictorially recorded in Meissonier’s 1884 painting, Le siège de Paris 1870-1871 [The Siege of Paris 1870-1871]. The event took place at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. During the siege Meissonier was colonel of a marching regiment. It is a painting which is part realism and yet partly allegorical. The central figure, standing in front of a tattered French tricolour flag, is that of Paris, draped in a black veil and a lion skin, and modelled by Meissonier’s wife. She stands above the ruined barricade. There is nothing glorious about the depiction, just a foreboding of hard times to come following the destruction of the city by the Prussian troops signified by the billowing clouds of ash emanating from the burnt-out buildings in the background. The work paints a picture of utter confusion as we see dead and dying soldiers lying on beds of palm leaves which were a symbol of martyrdom. Confusion abounds. Look at the man who lies against the skirt of Paris. This is the twenty-seven-year-old artist Henri Regnault. He was not killed during the siege but actually died in January 1871 at the Battle of Buzenval which was part of the Prussian offensive against the French and a precursor to the siege shown in this painting. Meissonier added him to the work to highlight the futility and waste of young and promising lives struck down by the conflict. Look carefully at the details of this work. To the right of the central character we see a woman holding up her dead baby to her husband. Further to the right we see a woman prostrating herself across the body of her dead husband and to the right of her we see an old man searching through the bodies in the hope of finding his son.

Napoléon III at the Battle of Solferino by Ernest Meissonier (1863)

The defeat to the Prussian army stayed in the minds of the French people and scenes from the war were common subjects for painters of the day. Most, like Meissonier, wanted to focus their depictions on the heroism of the French in defeat and offer some hope for the future.  In 1859, Meissonier was commissioned to paint the Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino. This was the beginning of a new series of works, which was to celebrate the glories of the first Empire. The Battle of Solferino took place on 24 June 1859 and resulted in the victory of the allied French Army under Napoleon III and Sardinian Army under Victor Emmanuel II and the defeat of the Austrian Army under Emperor Franz Joseph I. It was the last major battle in world history where all the armies were under the personal command of their monarchs. Meissonier completed the work in 1863 and is now housed in the Louvre.

La Rixe (The Brawl) by Ernest Messonier (1855 )

In 1851 he produced a very popular genre painting entitled La Rixe (The Brawl). The painting was one of nine paintings by Meissonier that were exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855, where it was awarded the prestigious Grande Médaille d’Or by the critics. One special admirer of the work was Prince Albert, the Prince Consort and wife of Queen Victoria. It was originally acquired by Emperor Napoleon III for 25,000 francs and then presented to Prince Albert on 26 August 1855, his thirty-sixth birthday. Queen Victoria recalled the gift-giving event:

“…We lunched with the Emperor & Empress. Both most kindly gave Albert presents, the former a beautiful picture by Meissonier called “La Rixe”, the finest thing in the Exhibition, which Albert had been in such extacies over…”

It is now part of the Royal Collection. In the painting we see that a row has broken out in a tavern over a game of cards. A melee ensued, and the table has been overturned. The two men seen brawling are elegantly dressed in early seventeenth-century-style doublets and breeches, and are being restrained by their three fellow players, whilst a sixth person can be seen peeping around the door. What has made the drama more realistic is the way Meissonier has portrayed the twisting and straining of the figures as they battle for supremacy. Meissonier often made wax model figures when planning a composition, and he also owned a large collection of historical costumes and weaponry which he used as props. This work is a romanticised history painting conjuring up a swashbuckling scene from the past and has its counterpart in the novels of Alexandre Dumas, whose The Three Musketeers, which was published in 1844, became the most commercially successful French book of the nineteenth century.

Innocents and Card Sharpers (A Game of Piquet) by Ernest Meissonier (1861)

Playing cards featured in several paintings by Meissonier and often they have a hint of skulduggery as is the case in his 1861 work, Innocents and Card Sharpers (A Game of Piquet). The depiction is of two innocent and naïve youths sitting around a table along with a group of card sharps. The callow youths are unaware of their dubious company, but the atmosphere is tense as seen by the man on the right, standing behind them, keeps his hand on his sword whilst others keenly watch the cards and the players.

A Man in Black smoking a Pipe by Ernest Meissonier (1854)

The National Gallery in London has an oil on wood painting by Meissonier entitled A Man in Black smoking a Pipe which he completed in 1854. Meissonier painted numerous genre scenes with individuals in period costume. This is a typical example with the smoker shown in a modest interior with a tankard and a glass of beer. The wall behind is decorated with some unframed popular prints.

Le Voyageur by Ernest Meissonier (c. 1880’s) s
Statuette in wax, fabric and leather

Whereas most people will know of Meissonier as a painter less would realise that he was also a sculptor. The Musée d’Orsay has a fine example of his prowess as a sculptor – Le Voyager (The Traveller) which he completed in 1840. This wax sculpture measuring (HWD) 48 x 60 x 40cms depicts a man hunched over the neck of his horse, as he battles against the wind and lashed by the rain.  The Traveller is probably the most notable of all the statuettes made by Meissonier and one that exudes an air of romanticism. Look how Meissonier by the way in which he models the musculature of the horse and by doing so, has been able to amplify the power of the piece. This work by Meissonier is an example of verism, (the theory that rigid representation of truth and reality is essential to art), in the way that he used real fabric for the coat and leather for the reins. Meissonier said that he enjoyed modelling and almost always worked in wax because it was so malleable.  He commented:

“…It is instant burst of creativity… You cannot imagine how absorbing and exciting it is to make a model…”

Campagne de France (Napoleon and his staff returning from Soissons after the Battle of Laon), by Ernest Meissonier (1864)

Meissonier was probably best known for his military art and paintings depicting Napoleon Bonaparte and scenes from Napoleonic battles. He specialised in meticulous, small-scale military scenes. One of his most memorable works is Campagne de France, 1814 [Campaign of France, 1814] which is housed in the Musée d’Orsay. Although this is a military history painting, in comparison to the often-monumental paintings of this genre, it is small in size, measuring just 52 x 77cms.  It is an example of Historical Realism in art. There is no sign of glorified heroics. The riders are not crossing a stretch of virgin white snow but rather an unpleasant-looking muddied terrain. This is pictorial history recording Napoleon and his staff returning from Soissons after being defeated at the Battle of Laon in March 1814 by the Prussian troops of Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher. The whole scene uses subdued brown and grey tones, and with the exception of the fortitude that emanates from the isolated figure of Napoleon on his white horse, there is a sense of doubt and resignation felt by the officers and the troops.

Friedland 1807 by Ernest Meissonier (1875)

Countering that image of Napoleon in defeat, Meissonier’s completed his largest and most ambitious painting, Friedland 1807, which evokes one of the emperor’s greatest victories. The work measures 136 x 243cms and is currently housed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Initially the work was bought “sight unseen” by the American department store magnate Alexander T. Stewart and later Judge Henry Hilton acquired the work at Stewart’s estate sale and in 1887 bequeathed it to the Metropolitan Museum. This work and the previous one, Campagne de France, 1814 were the only two paintings completed by Meissonier for his proposed cycle of five episodes in the life of Napoleon.

A General Officer by Ernest Meissonier

Meissonier produced very small meticulous paintings of military scenes and interiors as well as men in military uniforms such as his painting, A General Officer, which just measured 13 x 9cms. It depicts a General Officer in the army of Napoleon III. The painting, being in profile, shows off the military man wearing his grand military hat to its best advantage. The officer, dressed in white breeches and a blue jacket with gold epaulettes, stands in an upright pose with his hands behind his back. This type of meticulous painting by Meissonier is based on the style of seventeenth-century Dutch genre and still life paintings and they were greatly admired in his lifetime by both the public and the critics.

Advance Guard of an Army by Ernest Meissonier.

Another military miniature measuring 12 x 21cms is Advance Guard of an Army. In this work we see the advance guard of an army moving downwards along a path on a barren hillside. The column of troops is being observed by a solitary soldier on horseback at the top of the hill.  In the background on the far left we catch a glimpse of the sea. The overcast sky is plain and does not distract from the portrayal of the troop column. Once again Meissonier has used a low viewpoint to depict the movement of the horsemen and this technique lent itself well to Meissonier’s diminutive canvases, giving them a feeling of expansiveness in a small frame.

Street Scene near Antibes by Ernest Meissonier (1868)

In June 1868 Meissonier travelled to the south of France and stayed in Antibes. His desire to go to the Mediterranean coast was probably two-fold. Firstly he was interested in the life of Napoleon Bonaparte who had been imprisoned in Fort Carré, at Antibes and also when Napoleon returned from exile on the isle of Elba in 1815 he made landfall at Golfe-Juan along the coast from Antibes. The second reason for the visit was probably the excellent plein air painting conditions he would have had in Antibes.   Other plein air landscape painters would have talked to him about the conditions and have persuaded him to move away from his historical works and look to completing some landscape plein air work.

“…It is delightful to sun oneself in the brilliant light of the South instead of wandering about like gnomes in the fog. The view at Antibes is one of the fairest sights in nature.”

One such work he completed whilst there was his 1868 painting Street Scene near Antibes.

Napoleon and his Staff by Ernest Meissonier (1868)

Meissonier received many honours during his lifetime. In 1846 he was appointed knight of the Légion d’honneur and promoted to the higher grades in 1856, 1867, and 1880, eventually receiving the Grand Cross in 1889. One of his unfilled ambitions was to teach at the École des Beaux-Arts, but it never came to fruition. He also dabbled in politics but his attempts to be chosen as a deputy or made senator were never realised. When the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts was revitalized, in 1890, Ernest Meissonier was elected its first chairman, but he died shortly after the appointment.

Jean-Charles Meissonier, son of the artist, in Louis XIII costume by Ernest Meissonier

His son, Jean Charles Meissonier, also a painter, was his father’s pupil, and was admitted to the Légion d’honneur in 1889.

Statue of Meissonier at Parc Meissonier in Poissy (Yvelines), France

Meissonier’s wife died in June, 1888 and in August, 1890, he married Mlle Bezançon.   Meissonier died in Paris on 31 January 1891, just a few weeks short of his seventy-sixth birthday.  After a Requiem Mass at the Madeleine, on February 3rd 1891, he was buried at Poissy where a monument was erected to him in 1894.

Jules-Louis Ernest Meissonier – Part 1.

The Wallace Collection, London

When I go to a large town or city I tend to try and visit the local art gallery/museum. The trouble with these establishment in major cities such as London, New York, Paris, and Madrid, is that the foremost galleries tend to be massive in size and almost impossible to view all the works in the time you have free. When time is of the essence I tend to look for a smaller gallery and often they are little gems. When I am in London, and if I only have a few hours to spare, I try and visit the Wallace Collection which is situated in Manchester Square a short distance from Selfridges and Debenhams on Oxford Street.

Wallace Collection gallery

There, on display are a superb collection of works of art collected in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess. When Richard Wallace died in 1890, he bequeathed his entire estate, including the art collection, to his widow, Amélie-Julie-Charlotte Castelnau and it was Lady Wallace who, on her death in 1897, bequeathed it to the British nation. There were a couple of provisos that went with the bequest.

In her will, she specified that in return for her gift, the Government should provide a site to build a new museum and that the collection should be kept together. She also stipulated that the Wallace Collection was to be a closed collection, meaning that no other works of art could be added to it, permanently or temporarily, nor should any of the collection be taken away. So little changes with the art collection but one never tires of seeing so many gems of European oil paintings from the fourteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Both the 4th Marquess and his son, Sir Richard Wallace lived in Paris and they both acquired many works of art by eighteenth and nineteenth century French artists, such as Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard and Decamps as well as my featured artist, Jules-Louis Ernest Meissonier.

Self-portrait by Ernest Meissonier (1889)

In my next two blogs I will be looking at the life of Jules-Louis Ernest Meissonier, the great French Classicist painter, who is probably best known for his military and historical subjects, especially depictions of Napoleonic battles.  Meissonier was largely self-taught, and yet, became one of the highest paid painter in the second half of the century.

An Artist showing his Work by Ernest Meissonier (1851)

Ernest Meissonier was born, in Lyon on February 21st, 1815, just as the Napoleon Bonaparte era was ending.  He was the elder of two sons.  At the age of three his father moved his family to Paris. His father, Charles Meissonier, was a dye merchant and a very successful businessman, who owned a factory in Saint-Denis, north of Paris. The factory produced dyes for the textile industry. He also had a drug and provisions shop in the Rue des Ecouffes. Meissonier’s mother loved music and took lessons in the painting of miniatures and ceramics. She died when her son was still young.

Meissonier’s school record left a lot to be desired. When he was nine years old and attending a local school in Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, his teacher commented:

“…[he showed] too marked a tendency to draw sketches in his copy-books instead of paying attention to his teachers…”

Meissonier’s father was concerned about his son’s leaning towards art as the Romantic painters in those days did not have a great reputation and he believed that the likelihood of his son becoming successful was unlikely.  Later during his stay at a school on the Rue de Jouy his teacher reported on Meissonier’s love of art and the part it played in his failing at other subjects:

“… Ernest has a decided talent for drawing. The mere sight of a picture often takes our attention from our serious duties…”

By now Meissonier’s father was alarmed with his son’s progress and in 1832, when Ernest was seventeen years old, his father decided to pull him out of school and had him apprenticed as a druggist. Ernest was not happy with his father’s plan for his future and presumably after many months of conflict between father and son, he was allowed to study art at the atelier of Jules Potier. His stay there was short-lived and from there he moved to the atelier of the French history painter and portraitist, Léon Cogniet. However, Ernest was more influenced by the paintings of the Dutch and Flemish Masters which he saw at the Louvre than the teachings of Potier and Cogniet.

L’Expédition d’Egypte sous les ordres de Bonaparte (in 1798), by Léon Cogniet

However, it was whilst studying at Cogniet’s studio that Meissonier witnessed his master painting a military work which when completed in 1835 would be referred to as L’Expédition d’Egypte sous les ordres de Bonaparte (in 1798), (The 1798 Egyptian Expedition Under the Command of Bonaparte). Meissonier was fascinated to watch Cogniet working on the painting, soldiers were hired in for the day, dressed in republican uniform as well as dragoons and artillerymen and their horses. He realised that he would like to become a military painter, but that was some way in the future.

Dutch Burghers by Ernest Meissonier (1834)

Meissonier’s first breakthrough into the art world was when he had one of his paintings, Les Bourgeois Flamands (Dutch Burghers), also known as The Visit to the Burgomaster, accepted into the 1834 Salon. This very small oil painting measuring 18 x 22cms was, in essence, a costume piece depicting three sober-looking gentlemen dressed in traditional seventeenth century clothing. It is fascinating to see how Meissonier has depicted in this work the light and shadow. He has also inserted a still-life depiction into the painting with his rendition of the silver tray, jug, and glasses atop the table to the right of the painting. This work of art was acquired by Sir Richard Wallace for his Wallace Collection.

Chess Players by Ernest Meissonier (1853)

Meissonier in the mid-thirties soon realised that the life of an artist was one of depravation and living hand to mouth and had to turn to his father on a regular basis for financial assistance. Notwithstanding the financial hardships he endured, he had further success at the Salon in 1836 when two of his paintings, The Chess Player and The Errand Boy were accepted into the exhibition. It is interesting to note the vagaries of the Salon jury system as both these works had been rejected by the Salon jury in 1835.   The chess player theme was evident in another painting he completed almost twenty years later.  It was a miniature (9.5 x 12.5cms) which he painted in 1853.

The novel, Paul et Virginie, with illustrations by Ernest Meissonier

Financial salvation for Meissonier arrived in the form of book illustrations. He produced many woodblock illustrations for the publisher, Henri-Léon Curmer, for his edition of the popular 1788 novel Paul et Virginia,  by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. Meissonier also supplied a full set of diminutive illustrations for another edition of a novel by this author, which he wrote in 1790, La Chaumière indienne (The Indian Cottage). They were well received, and book sales flourished. Financially, the tide had turned for Meissonier.

The Recital by Ernest Meissonier (1853)

One of Meissonier’s artistic friends was the Strasbourg-born painter Auguste Steinheil and through this friendship, Meissonier met his sister Emma. A courtship followed and on October 13th 1838 Ernest and Emma married. The couple went on to have two children, a daughter Thérèse in 1840 and later a son, Jean-Charles. Maybe Meissonier had plans for his artistic future as on Thérèse’s birth certificate, Meissonier’s occupation was given as “painter of history”.

Isiah by Ernest Meissonier (c.1838)

In the late 1830’s Meissonier embarked on religious paintings and around 1838 produced Isaiah which was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1840. This was to be one of only a few religious paintings by Meissonier and so, with little success with this genre and advice from the French painter Jules Chenavard, he stopped painting religious scenes and returned to his small genre pieces featuring scenes of bourgeoise domestic life which proved so popular.  One of the reasons why miniature paintings were preferred to the bygone grandiose history paintings was that smaller canvases such as landscapes or portraits, because they fitted more easily onto the walls of Paris apartments, were big sellers. Meissonier was often referred to as the French Metsu, likening him to the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Gabriel Metsu, who also specialised in miniature scenes of bourgeois domestic life.

Smoker by Ernest Meissonier

The significant year in Meissonier’s life was 1842. It was in that year that he produced two beautifully painted genre works, The Smoker and The Bass Player. Critics were overwhelmingly complimentary and one of the leading critics at the time, Théophile Gautier commented:

“…In their small scale, we place these inestimable works without hesitation beside those of Metsu, Gerald Dou, and Mieris; perhaps even above them, because Meissonier has the truth of drawing, the fineness of tone and preciousness of touch joined with a quality that the Dutch hardly possess—style…”

Poissy, enclosure of the abbey, years 1870-1880.
From left to right, Meissonier’s house, Ridgway Knight’s house (center) and Notre-Dame collegiate church. Photo Agnès Guignard

Such critical praise made Meissonier one of the most sought-after painter of the decade, and his works of art appealed to a wide range of collectors. Such a demand for his work meant that the prices he could achieve for his work also rose and the money flowed in. The fruits of all this labour were rewarded and in 1847, he was able to purchase an elegant suburban home in Poissy, known as the Grand Maison. The Grande Maison included two large studios, the atelier d’hiver, or winter workshop, situated on the top floor of the house, and at ground level, a glass-roofed annexe, the atelier d’été or summer workshop. This rise in wealth and artistic status was a great achievement for somebody who had taught himself art and had no great financial backing from a well-to-do family.

The Barricade by Ernest Meissonier (1848)

Things had settled down in France politically since the Revolution of the 1790’s and the Napoleonic era but in 1848 the situation changed for the worse. In Paris, Louis-Philippe, known as the “citizen king was forced to abdicate that February, and the country descended into civil strife and anarchy. Meissonier was an artillery captain in the National Guard, and one his responsibilities was for his troops to defend the Hôtel de Ville. In June 1848, Meissonier witnessed a bloody struggle and resulting carnage with the massacre of the insurgents on a barricade of the rue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville. He produced a watercolour which depicted the outcome of the massacre. Meissonier neither forgot about the incident nor the painting for in the 1890’s he talked about his love for the work, in a letter to Alfred Stevens, the Belgian painter:

“…I am not modest about this drawing, and I am not afraid to say that if I were rich enough to buy it back, I would do so immediately […] When I painted it, I was still terribly affected by the event I had just witnessed, and believe me, my dear Alfred, those things penetrate your soul when you reproduce them […] I saw it [the taking of the barricade] in all its horror, its defenders killed, shot, thrown out of the windows, the ground covered with their bodies, the earth still drinking their blood…”

The watercolour was hailed as truly remarkable and it was acquired by the painter Eugène Delacroix and is now housed in the Musée d’Orsay.
This watercolour, depicting the outcome of the fight, was always considered, by both the artist and his contemporaries, as a remarkable and an unusual work. The history of this drawing also makes it special with Eugène Delacroix being its first owner.

The Barricade, rue de la Mortellerie, June 1848 by Ernest Meissonier (1849)

Meissonier did a follow-up oil painting depicting the massacre the following year entitled The Barricade, rue de la Mortellerie, June 1848 which can now be found in the Louvre. Once again, the depiction is based on Meissonier’s memory of what happened on that fateful day. In the work we see numerous corpses and severed limbs of the rioters lying amongst the cobblestones in the middle of a street lined with old houses.  Meissonier had hoped to exhibit this painting at the 1849 Salon under the title of June 1848, but he gave up on the idea saying that the horror of the incident was too fresh in people’s minds and many wanted to eradicate the incident from their memory. The art critic Théophile Gautier was the only one who dared to admit being disturbed by the work and talked of “this trusty truth that no-one wants to tell.” This unidealized work not only presents a denunciation of civil rebellion, but also highlights the growing tensions between the social classes in Paris.

………….to be continued.

Jean-Baptiste Pillement

The Interrupted Sleep by Francois Boucher (1750)
The Interrupted Sleep by Francois Boucher (1750)

Louis XIV, known as the Sun King died in 1715, at the age of seventy-seven after reigning for seventy-two years.  He had outlived all his legitimate children and two of his eldest grandchildren so his crown passed to his youngest grandchild, Louis Duke of Anjou, who became Louis XV at the age of five (the same age his grandfather was when he became Louis XIV) and his kingdom was ruled by his maternal great-uncle, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans as Regent of France, until Louis reached maturity in 1723.  The Duke of Orléans had a passion for beauty and cheerfulness and he tried to dismantle the godliness enforced by Louis XIV at his sumptuous home in Versailles. Following numerous wars under the previous monarch, France turned away from these imperial aspirations and instead, concentrated on more personal, and enjoyable pastimes. With this more relaxed political life and the letting-up of private morals, the change was mirrored by a new style in art, one that was intimate, decorative, and often erotic.  It was the era of Rococo.

Meeting in the Open Air by Jean-Antoine Watteau (c.1719)
Meeting in the Open Air by Jean-Antoine Watteau (c.1719)

Members of the new royal court began to decorate their sophisticated homes in a lighter, more delicate manner. This new style which came into being around the start of the 18th century has been known since the last century as “rococo,” from the French word, rocaille, for rock and shell garden ornamentation. The rococo style emphasized pastel colours, sinuous curves, and patterns based on flowers, vines, and shells. Artists moved away from depictions of lofty grandiloquence and instead focused on the pleasures of both colour and light, and also moved away from depictions of momentous religious and historical subjects and concentrated more on informal, friendly and relaxed mythological scenes as well as  joyous views of daily life, and elegant sophisticated portraiture.  When we think about rococo art we think of Jean-Antoine Watteau, François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard but today I am looking at the life and works of a lesser known rococo artist, Jean-Baptiste Pillement.

The Gardens of Benfica by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1785)
The Gardens of Benfica by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1785)

Jean-Baptiste Pillement was born in Lyon, France on May 24th 1728.  He received his first artistic training as a teenager from the French painter, Daniel Sarrabat in Lyon.  The training he received gave him an excellent foundation in the Rococo style of genre painting which had become so popular through the works of Jean-Antoine Watteau and François Boucher.  In 1743, aged fifteen, Pillement moved from his home town to Paris where he was taken on as a design apprentice at the Manafacture des Gobelins, a tapestry factory, which is best known as a royal factory supplying the court of the French monarchs.   In 1745 he left Paris and travelled to Spain and remained there for five years. He spent those years moving from city to city earning money sometimes as a designer other times as a painter.

Landscape with Travelers and a Ruin by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
Landscape with Travelers and a Ruin
by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

One recurring theme depicted in his paintings was that of rugged landscapes, shepherds with their flocks of sheep and goats cross fast flowing streams by way of rickety bridges, on either side of the cascading water we see lush green vegetation all of which was bathed in the golden glow of sunlight.

In 1750, after five years in Spain, the twenty-two-year-old Pillement journeyed to Lisbon where he was to remain for four years.  In 1754 Pillement left the Iberian Peninsula and travelled to London.  The favoured artistic genre of the English at that time was landscape painting and this meant that Pillement’s Rococo-style of romanticised landscape art was in much demand.  One of the popular artists at that time whose work was to influence Pillement was Nicolaes Berchem, the highly regarded and prolific Dutch Golden Age painter who painted numerous works depicting pastoral landscapes in the seventeenth century.

Landscape with a waterfall and the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli by Nicolaes Berchem
Landscape with a waterfall and the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli by Nicolaes Berchem

Berchem was part of the second generation of “Dutch Italianate landscape” painters who had travelled to Italy to take in the romanticism of the country and who would later return home to the Netherlands with sketchbooks full of drawings of classical ruins and pastoral imagery. Like Pillement, a century later, Berchem’s works were based on the Arcadian landscapes of the French painter Claude Lorrain which would typically depict shepherds grazing their flocks among Classical ruins, bathed in a golden sunlit haze.

The Mouth of the River Tagus by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
The Mouth of the River Tagus by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

During his sojourn in the English capital he became friends with the English actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer David Garrick and his wife, the dancer, Eva Maria Weigel.  Garrick had become quite wealthy through his acting and this allowed he and his wife to buy a palatial estate in Richmond-on-Thames which became known as Garrick’s Villa.  Eva Marie Weigel became an art collector and furnished the house with paintings, many of which were by Jean-Baptiste Pillement.

A Mountainous River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
A Mountainous River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

In 1763, Pillement was once again on the move, this time leaving London and travelling to Vienna.  His reputation as a successful painter gave him the opportunity to move in royal circles and was employed at the Imperial Court of Maria Theresa and Francis I.

Chinoiserie by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
Chinoiserie by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

In the eighteenth century, prints of designs was the foremost way of spreading information. They were often published monthly and were collected into folios or volumes, and people could order them by subscription. There was a massive demand throughout Europe, for these prints.   Pillement, whilst living in England, soon realised that the fashion there was the same as that in France, and, at the time, was the love of chinoiseries.  It was around 1764 that Pillement, according to his memoirs, had discovered a new method of printing on silk with fast colours.   Pillement’s illustrations were a blend of fanciful birds, flora & fauna, incorporating large human figures and chinoiserie.  The word, chinoiserie came from the French word Chinois, meaning “Chinese” and is a European version and simulation of Chinese and East Asian artistic traditions, especially in the field of decorative arts.  It first became popular during the 17th century and this trend was further commercialised in the 18th century with the boom in trade with China and East Asia.   The chinoiserie style is associated with the Rococo style with its cheerfulness, its concentration on materials, and often depicts times of great pleasure and leisure time.

One of Jean Baptiste Pillement's Ornamental Design for the book Nouvelle suite de cahiers chinois a l'usage des Dessinateurs et des peintres.
One of Jean Baptiste Pillement’s Ornamental Design for the book Nouvelle suite de cahiers chinois a l’usage des Dessinateurs et des peintres.

These beautiful and intricate designs were used by engravers and decorators not only on porcelain and pottery, but also on textiles, wallpaper and silver. Pillement published many albums, of these illustrations, the most famous being Œùvre de fleurs, ornements, cartouches, figures et sujets chinois which was published in 1776.

After Vienna, Pillement’s next stop, in 1765, was Poland and the city of Warsaw where he once again worked for the royal court of the Polish king, Stanislaw II, who commissioned him to decorate the Royal Castle in Warsaw and the nearby Ujazdowski Castle.

Inside Le petit Trianon
Inside Le petit Trianon

Pillement was forever on the move.  He worked in Saint Petersburg, the Piedmont, Milan, Rome and Venice as well as returning to his homeland where he was employed by Marie Antoinette to furnish the Petit Trianon, a small château located on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles which was built between 1762 and 1768 during the reign of Louis XV.   Its purpose was to house Louis XV’s long-term mistress, Madame de Pompadour, who sadly died four years before its completion.  However, all was not lost, as the Petit Trianon was subsequently occupied by her successor, Madame du Barry. When Louis XV died in 1774 he was succeeded by his son Louis-Auguste who became Louis XVI and when he came to the throne he gave the Petit Trianon to his wife Marie Antoinette whom he had married in 1770 when he was just fifteen years of age, the same age as his bride. In 1778 Pillement was nominated Court Painter to Queen Marie Antoinette, in which capacity he provided paintings for the Petit Trianon at Versailles.

A View of Lisbon by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
A View of Lisbon by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

During the 1780’s Pillement was living once again on the Iberian Peninsula where he completed many of his most treasured works of art.  In Portugal, he became one of that country’s leading landscape and marine artists. He was also named Court Painter to Queen Maria I and King Pedro III, at last accepting the honour and pension that he had declined when he lived and worked in the country some thirty-five years earlier. It was during this second stay that he also gained a reputation as one of Portugal’s finest teachers of art.

Landscape with Washerwomen by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1792)
Landscape with Washerwomen by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1792)

He eventually returned to France in 1789 but instead of returning to Paris  he settled in a small town of Pézenas, in the Val d’Hérault in the Languedoc region.  In 1800, aged 72, he returned to his birthplace, Lyon, where he continued to paint.  On September 1st 1801 the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte signed a famous decree, Decree of 14 Fructidor, the so-called Chaptal Decree, named after the famous chemist Jean-Antoine Chaptal, who was the minister for the interior from 1800–04.  The decree offered the fifteen newly founded museums the art treasures which had been captured from “the enemies of the Republic”.  In the main, these were post-Revolution confiscations effected in France, but also included artwork which had been seized elsewhere in Europe by the Republican and, later, Napoleonic armies. In Lyon, in 1801, the founding of the Musée des Beaux-Arts Lyon. The institution also fulfilled local aspirations, such as recalling the city’s prestigious Roman past and furnishing models for the silk industry, which was in crisis at that time.  And at the beginning of 1803, the Louvre Museum began to send a total of 110 paintings to be housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts Lyon.  Jean-Baptiste Pillement was employed at the museum to give art lessons which he continued doing for the rest of his life.

Fête Champêtre black chalk drawing by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
Fête Champêtre
black chalk drawing by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

Pillement achieved success not only as a landscape painter but was also one of the most influential decorators of the eighteenth century. His chinoiseries, arabesques and flower paintings providing elegant leitmotives for furniture makers, tapestry weavers, and particularly when he returned late in life to the south of France, he did much work for the silk industry of Lyon (Manufacture de Soie et des Indiennes), where he ended his distinguished career.

River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pellement
River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pellement

Jean-Baptiste Pillement died in Lyon in 1808, aged 80.  He will be remembered for his exquisite and delicate landscapes, but most of all for his engravings done after his drawings, and their influence in spreading the Rococo style and particularly the taste for chinoiserie throughout Europe.

In Maria Gordon-Smith’s 2006 book, Pillement, she commented:

“…the name Jean Pillement can evoke visions of Arcadian landscapes, luminous seascapes, and highly polished pastels and drawings. To the cognoscenti of decorative arts, Pillement is recalled as having been the most prolific and successful master of Rococo fantasy of his time. His designs were adopted by countless leading artistic manufactories, and their charm has never waned…”

Louis-Léopold Boilly

Self-portrait by Léopold Boilly (1805)
Self-portrait by Léopold Boilly (1805)

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.

A trompe l'oeil by Dominique Doncre
A trompe l’oeil by Dominique Doncre

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.

A trompe-l'oeil by Léopold Boilly
A trompe-l’oeil by Léopold Boilly

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.

The Visit received by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1789)
La Visite reçue (The Visit received) by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1789)

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.

The Visit Returned by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1787)
La Visite rendue (The Visit Returned) by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1787)

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.

The Suitor's Gift by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1790)
The Suitor’s Gift by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1790)

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.

The knowing look
The knowing look

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.

Gathering of Artists in the Studio of Isabey by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1798)
Gathering of Artists in the Studio of Isabey by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1798)

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.

Arrival of the Stagecoach by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1803)
Arrival of the Stagecoach by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1803)

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.

The Triumph of Marat by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1794)
The Triumph of Marat by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1794)

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.

The Movings by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1822)
The Movings by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1822)

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.

Recueil de Grimacers (Collection of Grimacers) by Louis-Léopold Boilly
Recueil de Grimacers (Collection of Grimacers) by Louis-Léopold Boilly

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”.

Les Grimaces by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1823)
Les Grimaces by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1823)

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)

The Artist's Wife by Louis-Léopold Boilly (c.1799)
The Artist’s Wife by Louis-Léopold Boilly (c.1799)

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.

Eugène Galien-Lalou – the painter of Paris

Eugene Galien-Lalou (1920)
Eugène Galien-Laloue (1920)

La Belle Époque, which literally means “Beautiful Age” is a name given in France to the period from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the start of World War I in 1914. So why was this termed a beautiful age?   Probably the reason for naming this period thus was because, for the middle and upper classes in France, the standards of living and security increased in comparison with the dark days that went before.  The devastation and death toll of the Franco-Prussian War and the short-lived but bloody battles of the Paris Commune were over.  Napoleon III’s period of power had ended and a Third Republic was declared.  It was a period free of wars affecting France.  It was a period of economic affluence and an era of many new innovations both cultural and technological.  For many it was a good time which needed to be savoured.  My artist today is one who lived and painted during this time and his Parisian street scenes of the time depicted an opulence which many, but the poorer classes, could enjoy. Let me introduce you to the French painter Eugène Galien-Laloue.  He was a consummate draughtsman.  His depictions of fin-de-siècle Paris architecture was of an amazing standard and yet he was not just a cityscape painter as he was equally adept with his landscape work in which he brought to life the rural French countryside.

Paris Street in Autumn by Eugene Galien-Lalou
Paris Street in Autumn by Eugène Galien-Lalou

In his tiny gouaches Galien-Laloue rendered every detail of fin-de-siècle Parisian architecture with absolute precision, but in his landscape works he was more attuned to the painterly tradition of the Barbizon School and the Impressionists, recording life in the rural French countryside in light-filled canvasses.  Galien-Laloue painted with great delicacy a wide variety of subjects.    Eugene

Un 14 Juillet, Place de la Republique by Eugène Galien-Lalou
Un 14 Juillet, Place de la Republique by Eugène Galien-Lalou

Eugène Galien-Laloue was born in Montmartre, Paris, on December 11th 1854, almost a year after his father, Charles Laloue, an artist and set designer, married Eugène’s mother, Endoxi Lambert in December 1853.  Eugène was the eldest of nine children and the large family lived on Rue Leonie in the Montmartre, which at the time was an artistic community where many of the Parisian artists and freethinkers lived.  Eugène, even as a child, demonstrated his artistic ability and almost certainly his early training from his father, who liked to paint, and being a set designer was a talented draftsman.  Charles Laloue died suddenly in 1869 when Eugène was fifteen years old and the family, which only just made ends meet when he was alive, struggled to survive financially.  Eugène, was forced to leave school so that he could find work and help his family and his mother secured him a job as an assistant to a notary.

Place de Bastille by Eugène Galien-Laloue
Place de Bastille by Eugène Galien-Laloue

In 1871, aged seventeen, filled with a sense of patriotism and nationalism, Eugène joined the army but to do so he had to lie about his age.  The war with Prussia was a short but deadly affair which France lost.  Fortunately, Eugène came through the bloody war unscathed and once the war ended he left the army and returned to civilian life.  His one aim in life was now to become a professional artist.  For an aspiring artist in Paris there was just one course one had to take to reach that ultimate goal.  One had to become a member of the prestigious L’Académie des Beaux-Arts, which was looked upon as the hub of the Parisian art world.  Some of the artists of this French Academy also served on the jury that selected paintings for the well-respected Salon de Peinture et de Sculpture, held at the Palais de l’Industrie on the Champs-Élysées, at which more than a thousand artists and sculptors had their works of art and sculptures displayed.  Unlike today there were only a small limited number of galleries where artists could show their work and so gaining access to the Salon was crucial for their success as painters and getting approval from the Salon hanging jurists was critical.

Flower Marketby by Eugène Galien-Laloue
Flower Market by by Eugène Galien-Laloue

In order to be nominated to the French Academy, an artist followed a well-tread course of instruction.  Students attended either the official school, the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris, or if they or their parents were affluent, received instruction in the private atelier of an established artist, often one who had connections with luminaries of the Salon.  Academic learning in the nineteenth century to become an artist was not an easy process.  The tuition was laborious albeit meticulous and it started off with the students learning draughtsmanship by copying engravings and sketching Roman and Greek sculpture, which was known as “working from the antique,” which translated, meant sketching black and white tonal studies from classical marble statuary or casts.  If the student had mastered that task, then the tutor would allow them to progress to the next phase of learning.  Advancement from one phase of instruction to another was based on the aspiring young artist mastering what they had been taught.  Progression was not based on an indiscriminate period of instruction.   They would then move on to drawing nude models using just graphite or charcoal.

Théatre de la Ville byby Eugène Galien-Laloue
Théâtre de la Ville by Eugène Galien-Laloue

Following several years of drawing the young artists would begin to paint.  This would be carried out under the direction of a time-honoured master and, when he believed his scholars to be ready, they would be allowed to submit their work to the Salon.  Having been trained by an established and well-respected painter would count for a great deal with the Salon’s jurists.  Not only did the jurists control which paintings would be exhibited they also decided on the placement of the paintings on the monumental and crowded wall of works.  A good placing of an artist’s painting (at eye level) ensured that they would be noticed by the buying public.  In the days of Eugène Galien-Laloue the Academy favoured large figurative works and looked on painting landscapes as a mere hobby one did when holidaying in the many artist colonies!

Illustrated railway poster of the time
Illustrated railway poster of the time

Records do not show whether Eugène attended the Academie des Beaux-Arts or any other academy, such as L’Academie Julian but when one of his works appeared at the Salon it was noted in the catalogue that he was artistically trained by his uncle, Charles Laloue, but of course this was also the name of his father, so maybe there was some confusion as to who did train Eugène.  In life, everybody needs a good break, a stroke of luck, and for Eugène it was the seemingly unbounded industrial enlargement of La Belle Epoque and one aspect of this was rapidly developing rail network which was growing westward from Paris. Eugène was hired as an illustrator for the French railways, the Chemins de Fer de l’Ouest.  The Compaigne de l’Ouest was formed in 1855 through the merger of several smaller railways operating in the western suburbs of Paris, largely serving Normandy and Brittany. Destinations served included London and Jersey (through ports in Normandy and Brittany), as well as Rouen, Dieppe, Saint-Germain, Mont St. Michel, Mers-les-Bains, Treport, and other outlying places.   Illustrators, like Eugene, were employed to illustrate the sights that awaited passengers on their rail journeys and these were used to seduce potential passengers to find out more about what lay at the end of the line.  To carry out his job as a railway company illustrator Eugène had to travel to all these “exotic” places out West and sketch the rural landscape along the way.

En Normandie by Eugène Galien-Laloue
En Normandie by Eugène Galien-Laloue

Eugene exhibited his work for the first time in 1876 at the Museum of Reims, where his work Le quai aux fleurs par la neige (Flower Market Along the Seine Under the Snow) was shown. The following year he exhibited for the first time at the annual Parisian Salon, showing En Normandie (In Normandy) as well as two other gouaches. He preferred executing gouaches since they were less time consuming as his oils and, in fact,  brought comparable prices.

Harbour Scene by Eugène Galien-Lalou
Harbour Scene by Eugène Galien-Lalou

After some time, Eugène Galien-Laloue decided to become self-employed and set himself up in his own Paris studio in rue de Clignancourt.  He spent a lot of his time alone which did not seem to bother him.  Acquaintances described him as a loner, an introvert, who was never happier than when he was working alone in his studio or sitting quietly managing his business.  Modern city life with all its gaiety did not appeal to him.  Maybe he became somewhat crotchety as it was said of him that he was a loner and someone who did not suffer fools gladly, and because of this characteristic people found it very difficult to befriend him.

The French Art Expert, Noe Willer, who was author of Galien-Laloue’s catalogue raisonné wrote of this aspect of Galien-Laloue’s character:

“…He was not eccentric but always conservative, practically a royalist.  He was obsessed with his painting.  In his private life he found simplicity alluring: he married three sisters, one after the other (beginning with the youngest and ending with the oldest).  They had all lived next door to him.  He lived a monastic life.  All worldly pursuits, games, alcohol, the pleasure of the flesh were not for him. Riding his bicycle to places in Paris to paint was his only physical exercise…”

View of the Grands Boulevards by Eugène Galien-Lalou
View of the Grands Boulevards by Eugène Galien-Lalou

The cityscape of Paris was changing rapidly during Eugène Galien-Laloue lifetime.  It all began around the 1830’s when Parisians were complaining about the condition of their city.  The city was overcrowded.   The streets with their open sewers were narrow and dark.  Paris had become a very dangerous and unhealthy environment to live in and the people were not happy with the government.  A whiff of revolution was once again in the air.  Tampering with the problem was not helping and so Napoleon III, in 1854, and his interior minister brought in Georges Eugène Haussmann, known as Baron Haussmann, to oversee the “rebuilding” of the city.  He had the slums torn down and the narrow streets were turned into wide avenues.  Large parks were created as were small villages on the periphery of the city.  A new theatre was built and the Paris Garnier opera house was completed in 1875.  The cit,y after many years of change, became a desirable place to live and it was this revitalisation of Paris which became the subject of the many Belle Epoque artists such as Eugène Galien-Laloue.

Summer Landscape with River by Eugène Galien-Laloue
Summer Landscape with River by Eugène Galien-Laloue

These Belle Epoque artists were pleased to depict the reality of the newly refurbished French capital with its cafés, parks and buildings.   More importantly this now beautiful city was a magnet to tourists, visitors from Great Britain and the United States came to Paris while they were partaking of the “Grand Tour” and  Galien-Laloue had a ready market for his work which concentrated on depictions of the city.  These depictions were just the treasured mementos the American tourists wanted to take home with them for it is known that many of Galien-Lalou’s cityscapes made their way across the Atlantic and into the collections of wealthy Americans from New York, Boston and Chicago.

La Madeleine sous la neige by Eugene Galien-Laloue
La Madeleine sous la neige by Eugène Galien-Laloue

One of Galien-Laloue’s favourite subjects was, L’église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine; less formally known as La Madeleine.  This Roman Catholic church, looking more like a Roman temple, occupies a commanding position in the 8th arrondissement of Paris and was originally designed as a temple to the glory of Napoleon’s army.  Galien-Lalou depicted the building and the area surrounding it in both summer with the flower markets brightening up the grey buildings and in winter with snow on the ground and people rushing to get to the warmth of their destinations.

River in Normandy by Eugène Galien-Laloue
River in Normandy by Eugène Galien-Laloue

In complete contrast, many people, who moved from the countryside in search of work and went to live in the bustling and noisy city, hankered after a more tranquil life in the countryside they had left behind and wished to be reminded of their rural idyll of the past.  Paintings depicting rural landscapes became popular and Galien-Laloue and the Barbizon painters of the time filled the void in the market for those people who wanted a landscape painting to remind them of the peaceful serenity of nature they had left behind.  Galien-Laloue had cornered both markets – Parisian street scenes and his rural landscape works which he made when he journeyed around the roads and villages of the Ile-de-France Region and the riverside views along the tree-lined banks of the rivers Seine and Marne.

In the early 1900’s Eugène and his family left the city of Paris and went to live at Fontainebleau, a town fifty kilometres south east of Paris which is surrounded by a large and scenic forest.  Eugène now fifty years of age was probably drawn to this area because of its beautiful and quiet environ and the slower pace of life such an idyll afforded.

Snow Scene in Paris by Eugène Galien-Lalou
Snow Scene in Paris by Eugène Galien-Lalou

In 1904 he once again put forward a painting which was exhibited at that year’s Salon.  It had been fifteen years since Galien-Laloue had exhibited at the annual Salon due partly to the politics of the Salon and maybe because his sales were so good that he no longer needed the Salon to be a sales vehicle. World War I broke out in August 1914 and the ever-patriotic Galien-Laloue put himself forward to fight for his country but, at that time, he was sixty years of age and he was considered too old for military duty.

Eugène Galien-Laloue married three times which in itself is not unusual but the extraordinary thing was that his three wives were sisters.  He married Flore Bardin in the 1880’s and they had one child, a son, Fernand.  She died in 1887 and five years later he married her elder sister Ernestine.  This second marriage lasted thirty-three years until she died in 1925.  They had a daughter Flore.  A short time after the death of his second wife he married for a third time this time to another of the Bardin sisters, Claire.  Claire died in 1933 and Eugène, now almost eighty years of age, moved back to Paris to live with his daughter Flore, her husband and his grandchildren.

Sortie La Théatre by Eugene Galien-Laloue
Sortie La Théâtre by Eugène Galien-Laloue

Galien-Laloue never stopped painting but his output of pictures decreased.  Despite living with his family, he became even more introverted and lived a rather solitude lifestyle.  When the German army moved towards Paris in 1940, the family left their city home and went to their summer residence in their country at Chérence in Val d’Oise.  During this flight from the French capital Eugène broke his arm which curtailed his ability to paint.

Eugène Galien-Laloue died at Chérence on April 18th 1941, aged 86.

Many of his paintings also bore other names such as “L.Dupuy”, “Juliany”, “E.Galiany”, “Lievin” and “Dumoutier”.  The reason for this is thought to be that he had a sales exclusivity contract with certain galleries that gave them the exclusive right to sell all his works and so to get around this he may have decided to sell some of his works under a different name !   So why those pseudonyms?   J. Lievin’ was the name of a soldier he met during the Franco-Prussian war, ‘E. Galiany’ is an Italianized version of his own names, and ‘L. Dupuy’ was the name of a neighbour, Dupuy Léon.  Although he signed the paintings, very few of them showed a date and art historians have found it difficult to actually date them.

Maurice Denis. Part 2 – Religion and his wife, Marthe

Portrait of the Artist Aged Eighteen by Maurice Denis
Portrait of the Artist Aged Eighteen by Maurice Denis

The year 1890 was the year Maurice Denis began to fall in love.  It was in this year that he met Marthe Meurier, a musician.  He had started to write a journal diary in 1884 and kept adding daily passages throughout his life.  In his diary entry for September 3rd 1891 he declared his happiness at being in love.  He wrote:

“…One feels more beautiful when one is in love.  The attitudes are easy and chaste.  Life becomes precious, discreet…”

And later the diary entry for November 8th 1891 shows his joy with being with Marthe and his love for her:

“…She is more beautiful than any picture, any representation, any subjective effect!  She exists outside of me, I am not the one who creates her…….Faith, love is an act of faith.  I believe in you Marthe…”

Le menuet de la Princesse Maleine ou Marthe au piano (Princess Maleine's Minuet or Marthe Playing the Piano). by Maurice Denis (1891)
Le menuet de la Princesse Maleine ou Marthe au piano (Princess Maleine’s Minuet or Marthe Playing the Piano).
by Maurice Denis (1891)

Denis would complete many portraits of his fiancé.  One of the first, completed in 1891, was entitled Le menuet de la Princesse Maleine ou Marthe au piano (Princess Maleine’s Minuet or Marthe Playing the Piano).  It is an interesting depiction of his fiancé.  She is in three quarter profile with her hands resting on the keys of the piano.  On the piano stand we see the frontispiece of some sheet music, the cover of which was designed by Maurice.  The Princess Maleine mentioned in the title of the painting was a character in a tragic and violent play written by Maurice Maeterlinck that year.  The book had obviously captured the imagination of Maurice’s fiancé as Denis wrote an entry in his diary that October:

“…She is reading again the Princess Maleine until two in the morning. She is pale, nervous, affectionate. Pains for me, and again doubts. Always doubts. Never mind, it’s life…”

The background wall is coloured using the technique known as pointillism, in which small, distinct dots of colour are applied in patterns to form an image.  This technique was developed by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac in 1886 (see My Daily Art Display Oct 21st 2011).  This painting is housed in the Musée d’Orsay.

Triple portrait of Martha by Maurice Dennis (1892)
Triple portrait of Martha by Maurice Dennis (1892)

Another interesting portrait of his fiancé was completed a year later in 1892.  It was entitled Triple Portrait de Marthe, fiancée.  In the painting we see three portraits of Marthe and by depicting Marthe’s images three times in the work Maurice had hoped to symbolise the different aspects of his fiancé’s personality.  He believed that a single portrait would only depict one characteristic whereas a multiple portrait gave him the chance to load the painting with many of her traits and, by doing so, depicting the uniqueness of his fiancé.

Triple Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle by Maurice Denis (1897)
Triple Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle by Maurice Denis (1897)

Maurice Denis used the same technique later in 1897 when he completed Portrait d’Yvonne Lerolle en trois aspects (Triple Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle).  Yvonne was a friend of Denis and the daughter of Henri Lerolle and art patron and music publisher.  The artist recorded in his journal how he structured the painting, writing:

 “…Do the portrait of Y, making the foliage prominent and set the small tree further back so that it becomes more prominent and, at the same time, makes room for the smaller figures. 1. decide on a composition; 2. draw each part or essential element;  3. put the composition on to canvas with the modifications and patches of colour;  4. draw in chalk, charcoal, then in de-oiled paint, and in local colour;  5. rub down and then touch up. Give equal care to each operation. The advantage of this formula is that you only have to paint once and you can do each section individually…”

The description that accompanies the painting which is housed in the Musée d’Orsay states:

 “…Maurice Denis seems particularly fond of using “mise en abyme” as the image reduces: the paving stones in the foreground provide a reference point, as if everything beyond this becomes a variation on the image of the young woman. By portraying several phases in the life of Yvonne, Denis remains faithful to his love of allegorical representations of moments of existence, like those he had already done in the four paintings of his Seasons cycle (1891-1892, various locations). And, by reminding us, along with Mallarmé, Maeterlinck and Proust, that the true essence of a human being is the sum of his or her successive appearances, Denis reaches a pinnacle of Symbolist art…”

Mise en abyme is a formal technique in which an image contains a smaller copy of itself, in a sequence appearing to recur infinitely; “recursive” is another term for this.

La Cuisinière by Maurice Denis (1893)
La Cuisinière by Maurice Denis (1893)

My next picture which I am showing you is La Cuisinière (The cook).  This also features Marthe Meurier, now his wife Marthe Denis,.  It was completed in 1893, the year the two were married.  Maurice Denis was brought up as a Catholic and one of the things that he must have found attractive about his future wife was her strong Christian beliefs.  Both were familiar with the Bible and although it may not be apparent at first sight, this picture has religious connotations.  It is typical of Denis’ early works being simply, as the Christie’s New York catalogue described it:

“…a plane surface covered with colors, a compositional tour-de-force in Denis’ oeuvre….. It also possesses a powerful narrative, one that carries several layers of meaning in the symbolist manner, pertaining to the artist, the cook, Brittany, the New Testament and the history of European painting…”

 After Maurice and Marthe married in June 1893 they honeymooned in a small rented house in the small Breton town of Perros-Guirec and the interior of the building features in this painting. Maurice decided to feature his wife working in the kitchen as he looked on her domestic expertise as a wonderful attribute.  He wrote in his journal the following year:

“…she carries out the essential household tasks with total dedication” while displaying her shy love and her taste for what is beautiful among humble domestic tasks…”

It is no coincidence that Maurice’s wife was named Marthe by her very religious parents.  It was the name of the woman in the New Testament who was known for her dedication at home.  We see Denis’ wife Marthe in the foreground working in the kitchen but look carefully at the background of the work and the silhouette against the window.  It is that of Jesus and Mary. Accoring to the bible, Jesus had come to visit the two sisters, Martha and Mary of Bethany.  In this painiting, Marthe Denis is portraying the character of Martha, who is hard at work in the kitchen.  The story according to the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42) sets the scene:

“… As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.  She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her…”

However in this work, Denis has focused on the character of Martha rather than Mary.  The biblical tale focuses on Jesus’ support for Mary who was, rather than helping Martha with her kitchen chores, had chosen to just sit and listen to the words of Jesus.  As in most paintings depicting the threesome, Martha was cast as the bit player and although Jesus did not reproach her for complaining about her sister he said he could see no wrong in Mary’s choice not to help her sister.  Maurice Denis’ painting takes an opposing stand, casting Martha as the tireless worker who was looking after the needs of their respected visitor.  Having said all this, let us remember that this is first and foremost another portrait of Denis’ wife.

The Muses by Maurice Denis (1893)
The Muses by Maurice Denis (1893)

On 12 June 1893 Denis married his great love, Marthe Meurier. The wedding reception was held on the terrace in front of the Pavilion of Henri IV in the forest of St-Germain-en-Laye, Paris, which had also been the setting for Denis’ major painting The Muses, completed earlier that year. This large decorative composition, measuring 171 x 138 cms, was both a significant representation of the artist’s style at the time, as well as a remarkable prefiguring of Art Nouveau, which emerged in the mid 1890s.  It is very noticeable in this painting that Denis had expanded his palette with much richer colours such as reds, greens and golds.  The Art Nouveau style can be seen in the way the artist has incorporated sinuous lines and decorative patterning of the trees, their trunks, and their leaves, which lie scattered on the ground like a carpet.  Maurice Denis had been commissioned to paint this work by Arthur Fontaine, a French government official.  The title of this painting, The Muses, derives from Greek mythology and refers to the nine goddesses of literature, science and the arts.  Each of the Muses had their own domain, one would be “in charge of” dance, one for comedy, one for literature and so on.  The Muses were considered the fund of knowledge which was embodied in the poetry, song-lyrics, and myths.  Denis used his wife, Marthe as a model for each of his three Muses in the foreground of this painting.  On the left of the trio we see Marthe with a sketchbook on her lap.  She is the Muse who is associated with art.  The depiction of Marthe with her bare back and shoulders on view to us, dressed in what looks like a ball gown, is the Muse of love.  The third Muse which Marthe portrays is dressed in black, her hair is covered with a veil and on her lap is an open religious book, maybe the bible or a book of prayers.  She is the Muse associated with religion.  In the background, amongst the trees, we see many more females walking about dressed in full length gowns and it is this which adds to the “otherworldly” character of the painting.

Decoration of the chapel of the College of the Holy Cross Vésinet by Maurice Denis (1899)
Decoration of the chapel of the College of the Holy Cross Vésinet by Maurice Denis (1899)

As I mentioned earlier both Maurice and Marthe Denis were devout Roman Catholics and much of his later art focused on religion.  He was determined to renew French church art.  French religious art had lost its popularity and was often cynically termed as the Saint-Sulpice style of art, named after the area in Paris surrounding the famous church which flooded the market with plastic religious relics.   After visiting Italy in 1910, Denis became greatly influenced by the works of the great Italian fresco painters of the 14th and 15th centuries and began to place emphasis on subject matter, traditional perspective, and modelling, which was contrary to the ideas of Les Nabis.  In November 1919 Maurice Denis and a contemporary of his, fellow artist George Desvallières, founded an artistic movement known as the Ateliers d’Art Sacré (Studios of Sacred Art).  The aim of this movement was to create church art once again and teach aspiring young artists to create paintings that would serve God and would decorate places of worship with tasteful religious works.   Maurice himself went on to complete works on canvas as well as murals for more than fifteen churches throughout France.  His artistic work was one of the chief forces in the resurgence of religious art in France.

Le Calvaire (La montée au Calvaire) by Maurice Denis (1889 )
Le Calvaire (La montée au Calvaire) by Maurice Denis (1889 )

One of his early religious works, which he completed in November 1889, is entitled Le Calvaire, or La Montée au calvaire (Calvary, also called Road to Calvary).  It is a painting of great simplicity.  The structure of the composition is a rising diagonal which runs from the bottom right of the painting with the group of women, black clad nuns, and moves diagonally up to the top left of the work to the top of the upright of the cross.  One is not given any pictorial detail of the women who slowly follow the procession.  They just merge together to form a black mass of people as is the gathering of the lance bearing Roman soldiers we see in the right background.  This anonymity of the women makes for a more haunting image.  In the mid-ground we see Jesus forced to his knees by the weight of the cross.  Mary his mother has moved to him, embraced him and offered her support.

The dome of the Theatre Champs-Élysées
The dome of the Theatre Champs-Élysées

In 1911 Maurice Denis was commissioned to carry out paintings and murals for the soon to be built Theatre des Champs-Elysées which opened in 1913.  The theatre is made up of three separate theatres.  The largest theatre was for symphony concerts and operas whilst the two smaller theatres stage repertory theatre.  The Art Deco building was designed by a talented group of artists.  The architect was initially Henry van der Velde but later taken over by August Perret and his brother.  Antoine Bourdelle looked after the bas relief sculpture work on the outside, Maurice Denis designed the massive cupola dome with its immense mural decorations whilst Édouard Vuillard was tasked with the paintings.

Maurice Denis' murals in L'Église du Saint-Espirit, Paris.
Maurice Denis’ murals in L’Église du Saint-Espirit, Paris.

One of the churches which Maurice Denis and some of the artists from the Ateliers d’Art Sacré, decorated, was the Église du Saint-Espirit which can be found in the 12th arrondissement of Paris.  The building was designed by Paul Tournon.  The construction began in 1928 and was completed seven years later.

The chapel at Le Prieuré
The chapel at Le Prieuré

In 1918 Maurice Denis purchased the old General Hospital of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which had been built by Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan.  Denis named it the Le Prieure (the Priory). Maurice’s wife Marthe died on August 22nd 1919 after being ill for several years.  Maurice Denis later painted murals on the walls of the chapel, which was part of the Le Prieuré, which he dedicated to her memory.

On February 2nd 1922, Denis married again.  His second wife was Elisabeth Graterolle, and she gave her husband two more children.   Maurice Denis died in L’hôpital Cochin in Paris after being taken there with injuries he sustained resulting from being hit by a truck on the Boulevard St Michel on November 13th 1943, just twelve days before what would have been his seventy third birthday.

There was so much more to write about this great French artists and so many more paintings I could have added but time and space dictate that I leave it there.  If you like what you have seen in my last two blogs, I hope you will take the opportunity to research further into the life and works of Maurice Denis.