Boilly (1761-1845)

Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts, from 4 November 2011 to 6 February 2012

1. Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)
A Girl at a Window, after 1799
Oil on canvas - 55.2 x 47.5 cm
Londres, National Gallery
Photo : The National Gallery

A great or a minor master ?” asks Jacques Foucart in a catalogue essay which raises many other questions [1] as well. This is not the first time this one comes up and the Lille exhibition on Louis-Léopold Boilly, often reduced to the stature of a slapdash portrait artist (he did in fact produce hundreds, even thousands [2] of small paintings of similar size - about 22 x 17 cm), allows us to (re)discover the painter’s rich diversity thanks to some 190 works lent by the world’s leading institutions, British, American, German and Russian, as well as France’s greatest museums.

In the area devoted to temporary exhibitions, the architect Thierry Germe has succeed in installing, along with the curator, Annie Scottez-De Wambrechies (assisted by Florence Raymond), an elegant setting, which does not overwhelm the canvases (few of which are much bigger than average size) and drawings, offering interesting comparisons between preparatory studies and finished works [3], varying the colors on the walls so as to reflect the different moments in Boilly’s career. The visit, a chronological one except for the first ("Boilly, his family and close friends") and last sections ("Trompe-l’oeil, the art of illusion"), allows us to follow an original evolution which avoided pictorial modes : in the midst of 18th century neo-Classicism, moralizing or amorous art, Boilly pursued his own source of inspiration, also ignoring the grand genre of historical art, then at the service of Imperial glory, as well as landscape painting which was becoming one of the main currents of newborn Romanticism. He was a true "Talleyrand of painting" according to the ever inspired words of Alain Tapié.

Before even entering the exhibition, below the name Louis Boilly in large letters, an enlargement of the last work in the show, A Girl at a Window (ill. 1), awaits us, much as in the way of an architectural "capriccio", revealing the various facets of the artist’s oeuvre : this is a portrait (although not in the category of "petits portraits" which made him famous), no doubt a likeness of his first wife who also appears, in the first room, in a superb black chalk rendition of the head with the same pose and which resides at the Château-Musée in Boulogne-sur-Mer. This oil portrait is "treated as a grisaille, imitating an engraving [4]" (a practice seen in many examples here in the exhibition : The Delicate Gift, c. 1791, Paris, Musée des Arts décoratifs ; Ah ! ça ira and The Grateful Hearts, c. 1789-1790, pr. coll., My Little Soldiers, 1809, Douai, Musée de la Chartreuse) ; the young girl is sitting on the window sill and through the open frame the viewer glimpses a trompe l’oeil which Boilly treated in fact in an oil on paper exhibited in the last section (The Triumph of Amphitrite, after 1875, pr. coll.) ; in this "mise en abyme" formed by the open window, the careful pleats of the curtain, a bird cage, a bunch of carrots, a fish bowl recall the influence of the Dutch "Fijnschilders" tradition (Dou, Van Mieris, Metsu...) which Boilly fervently admired ; finally, we discover the presence of a child (quite similar to the one in the Presumed Study for the Portrait of Simon Boilly [black and red chalk, Paris, pr. coll.]) looking through a spy glass which multiplies the looks exchanged between the viewer and the figures in the canvas, a twist on the theme of the "voyeur in turn spied upon", here a comic turn subtly used by the painter in his works.

2. Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)
Wall of small portraits
Retrospective of Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille
Photo : Didier Rykner

3. Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)
Madame Boilly, né Marie-Madeleine Desligne, before 1795
Black chalk with white chalk heightening, pastel
and gray wash - 45 x 55 cm
Boulogne-sur-Mer, Château-Musée
Photo : Boulogne-sur-Mer, service photographique

4. Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)
Presumed Portrait of André or Félix Boilly, about 1795-1800
Oil on paper mounted on canvas- 18 x 14 cm
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts
Photo : RMNGP/Le Mage

In a preamble, and in order to settle the question of Boilly’s reputation as a small portrait artist once and for all, a wall displays about twenty of these works "painted with Stendhal-like thrift" (J. Foucart), from the Musée Marmottan (except for two which are from the Musée Carnavalet) : stacked in four rows of five each (ill. 2), they show both a standardization in the technique - tight centring, dark background -, and also a real attention on the artist’s part to each model’s specific character, psychologically defined.
The first section then introduces us into the privacy of the Boilly family : his father, his two wives (with the superb black chalk head of Madame Boilly, né Marie-Madeleine Desligne (ill. 3), whom we said might be the model for the Girl at a Window), his many children (the above mentioned My Little Soldiers providing an amusing glimpse of three of his sons acting out a military parade - reflecting the Imperial era - while a dog stands at attention with a baguette in his paws) and among which we would point out the Presumed Portrait of André or Félix Boilly (ill. 4), his self-portraits, some very serious, others on the contrary more facetious such as a Jean Laughing in black lead and red chalk from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. As for the Self-Portrait as a Revolutionary (1793 [An II], pr. coll.) which the catalogue analyzes for its "scowling face" as that of a "Revolutionary with convictions" shouldn’t it, given Boilly’s lack of militant fervor, be seen rather, as an expression of derision or disgust at the "sans-culottes" ?

5. Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)
Receiving a Visit, 1789
Oil on canvas - 45 x 55 cm
Saint-Omer, Musée de l’Hôtel Sandelin
Photo : Musée de l’Hôtel Sandelin/P. Beurthert

6. Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)
The Indiscreet Man, about 1790/1795
Oil on canvas - 46 x 38.5 cm
Paris, Musée Cognacq-Jay
Photo : Musée Cognacq-Jay

The following section, "Success in Paris (1785-1791). Amorous and moralizing scenes", presents Boilly’s first genre paintings due to commissions from a wealthy Avignon lawyer, a former muskeeter to the king, Joseph François Calvet de Lapalun (1736-1820). Boilly had to follow a strict set of demands entitled Sujet pour des tableaux in which his patron imposed not only the themes but also the general structure of the canvases. Of the eleven paintings which were commissioned, four, belonging to the Musée de l’Hôtel Sandelin in Saint-Omer, are exhibited here : Receiving a Visit (ill. 5), An Improvised Concert and Love’s Flame also Extinguishes It (1790), finally The Jealous Elder (1791). They all share the fact that they tell a story blending a jest with a moral point and are constructed around well lit figures (but where is the light coming from ?) which stand out against dark shadows relegating the source of the intrigue to the background. How can we not think of Fragonard (especially in the naughty and charming canvas, The Indiscreet Man - ill. 6 - or The Electric Spark, a witty take on an amorous version of mesmerism [c. 1791, Richmond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts]), or perhaps the theatricality of Greuze ? One of the high points of this section can be found in the presentation of two versions, probably from 1791, of The Delicate Gift, one of the paintings belonging to the cycle commissioned by Calvet de Lapalun : the oil on canvas in a colored version (Toulouse, Fondation Bemberg) and its matching pair in oil on canvas "imitating an engraving" (Paris, musée des Arts décoratifs, quoted above). The juxtapositon of the two canvases helps us to understand the changes Boilly introduced when he went from colors to grisaille : besides reducing the format and also signing as in an engraving, he lightened the scene in order to make it just as easy to grasp although the colors have disappeared, so that the monochromatic shading retains all of its depth and the details remain as visible.
These canvases, accused of "corrupting mores", resulted in quite a headache for Boilly [5] during "The Revolutionary Torment", the subject of section 3. There are few works here, but a large format (80 x 120 cm) meant for the contest organized in An II (1793) by the Constituante in order to promote republican spirit : The Triumph of Marat (Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts), for which there is a preparatory study (Versailles, Musée Lambinet), reveals the evolution of this project. By modifying the use of space, zooming in on the figures to the detriment of the décor, Boilly makes them more prominent and thus achieves a fine balance in the composition. This was to be the first of a long series of paintings which would reflect Boilly’s fondness for cortèges, street crowds and indoor gatherings.

We thus see in section 4, "The Beginning of Success. From the Directoire to the Consulat (1795-1804)" and 5, "The Empire and Glory (1804-1814)", some of Boilly’s most famous canvases, the reason for his success in the official Salons of 1798 (where he presented "a painting [...] besieged by crowds" : Isabey’s Studio - ill. 7), of 1804 (with another artist’s studio, Houdon, but more controversial, and The Arrival of the Stagecoach in the Messageries Courtyard which drew unanimous praise : "This is a fine painting : Everything is true on purpose : the attitudes are very natural"), of 1809 (in which we find a disconcerting subject A Billiards Game, whereas The Conscripts of 1807 Filing by the Porte Saint Denis, The Reading of the Bulletin of the Grande Armée and The Card Sharp on the Boulevard were "hailed by all friends of the arts") and of 1812 (where his canvas Entrance to the Jardin Turc "draws crowds with his art of retracing truthfully our ridiculous characters". Looking only at these works, one can see a definite confirmation in Boilly’s production of his interest in scenes teeming with figures in an expanded, but still reduced, space - and two reorientations - his fondness for everyday reality and his penchant for illustrating particular details which project the universal, much in the style of a caricaturist. Here again, the exhibition in Lille, in a kind of work in progress, has succeeded in assembling completed versions, preparatory drawings and oil sketches for many of the works in these sections.

7. Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)
Isabey’s Studio, Salon of 1798
Oil on canvas - 71.5 x 111 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMNGP

This is the case notably for Isabey’s Studio (ill. 7), "the most ambitious painting in [Boilly’s] career as concerns portraits [6]" since it brings together what Silvain Laveissière calls a "Pantheon of friends [7]", thirty-one figures of contemporary art, of all genres, from painters to writers, including architects, sculptors, actors and musicians. Three black chalk or crayon studies reveal how he constructs the ensemble, modifies it, changes the symmetry and, twenty-four oils, each presenting a sketch of a figure posing (included or not in the final version) provide a better explanation of the portraitist’s work in "two hours’ time" to execute a painting which carries no allegorical message or manifesto unlike similar gatherings painted by Courbet or Fantin-Latour. Isabey’s Studio corresponds to a radical change in Boilly’s process : instead of the "photo-booth" portraits - to borrow A. Scottes-De Wambrechies’ apt term - he turned to full-length standing representations (we see a significant juxtaposition between the two portraits from the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen of the musician Boieldieu, one in an oil sketch treated in small format as per Boilly’s traditional process, the other shown standing in an Ingres-like setting which the artist produced at that time against a decorative landscape background : the famous portrait of Madame Tallien [c. 1800-1804, United States, pr. coll.], that of Antoine Thomas-Laurent Goupil [c. 1807, England, pr. coll.] or that of Madame Saint-Ange Chevrier [1807, pr. coll.]).
These portraits which the exhibition has grouped together under the absurd title of "pre-Romantics [8]" convey above all a radical transformation in Boilly’s work of the relationship between man and space : while the latter did not acquire an autonomous status (as proven by only two landscapes in the exhibition, showing they did not interest him), it did become a support for a setting which plays on the fine line between illusion and mimesis. The artist illustrated this relationship in a scene where reality is caricatured in a brilliant way, The Reading of the Bulletin of the Grand Army (ill. 8), transforming historical painting into a story-telling incident, full of anecdotal tidbits, inside a single limited space where he mixes various genre scenes, among which the bloated faces of some figures reach truly grotesque proportions. This tendency to indulge in caricature would become extremely pronounced...

8. Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)
The Reading of the Bulletin of the Grand Army, 1807
Oil on canvas - 44.5 x 58.5 cm
Saint Louis, Art Museum
Photo : Saint Louis Art Museum

9. Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)
The Card Sharp on the Boulevard, 1806
Oil on panel - 24 x 33 cm
Washington, National Gallery of Art
Photo : National Gallery of Art

With Entrance to the Jardin Turc (see news item of 14/11/11) accompanied by his preparatory Study in pen and brown ink (idem), Boilly conveys the full measure of his talents as a gossip writer of Parisian life, "another Mercier, in his field" as Paul Marmottan suggests in his study on the painter [9]. While keeping a reduced format (91 cm. wide), Boilly managed to condense what takes Marcel Carné several minutes to achieve in the film Les Enfants du Paradis, drawn out chronologically and in several long-shots. In Boilly’s work, time is not treated chronologically but by concentrating various genre scenes retaining, however, their individual potential, which take place simultaneously on a canvas of perfect formal unity. To go even further : in The Card Sharp on the Boulevard (ill. 9), a mini format (24 x 33 cm.), the artist depicts about 23 figures, each perfectly distinguishable, all standing, divided into three groups and where here a seduction scene plays out showing a young dandy being propositioned by a prostitute while a boy robs him behind his back, elsewhere a barker is surrounded by a dense crowd ; despite the relationsip area/characters, the scene remains very easy to grasp. Besides his talent as a draughtsman, Boilly adds here his skill at ingenious artifice : for example, how to light an indoor scene while treating it as if it were taking place under natural light ? The answer can be found in A Billiards Game (1807, Saint Petersburg, Hermitage Museum) accompanied by its Study in crayon and ink (Zurich, pr. coll.) which shows a skillful invention : Boilly uses a light from above which makes the room look like the space on a street and, here again, multiplies the various sequences.

10. Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)
Entering the Ambigu-Comique Theater, Salon of 1819
Oil on canvas - 66.5 x 80.5 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMNGP/R. G. Ojéda

Under the Restoration, Boilly attains "The Last Splendor of His Career" (section 6) : we are reminded of Diderot’s Philosopher in Rameau’s Nephew who evokes in his first pages "the wood pushers" when looking at Inside a Parisian Café (c. 1815, ink, wash and watercolor, Paris, Musée Carnavalet) or The Chess Players (1815, black chalk and stump), and even more so in his rambles as a sharp and amused observer of Parisian life : the lively scene with people jostling in Entering the Ambigu-Comique Theater (ill. 10) in Crime Boulevard, the mob scene on the Champs Elysées in Distributing Wine and Food (1822, Paris, Musée Carnavalet), the carts piled up near the old wheat port [10] for The Movings (1822, Chicago, The Art Institute), a succulent gathering of unscrupulous politicians at the Tuileries Gardens (The Politicians in the Tuileries Gardens, 1832, Saint Petersburg, Hermitage Museum). At once tender and ferocious in his chronicles, Boilly falls under the category of Realism with a poetic tint. His last work, M. Defontenay’s Courageous Gesture (29 August 1792), 1832, Rouen, musée des Beaux-Arts) can be seen as a unique example in his production : it associates the nobility of the subject and the figure, the mayor of Rouen, with the caricatures of the faces, once again transforming the stern genre of historical painting in order to imprint it with a very personal touch, thus playing as he does so often with the relationship between pure mimetic representation and pictorial illusion.

11. Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)
The Effect of Melodrama, about 1830
Oil on canvas - 32 x 44 cm
Versailles, Musée Lambinet
Photo : RMNGP/P. Bernard

This is in fact the subject of the last section, which is purely thematic and approaches the aspects of "trompe l’oeil" and caricature. To be frank : while the latter achieves a level of veritable jubilation, comparable to that of Daumier’s (see his Antique Dealers, his The Tooth-Drawer and especially his Group of Thirty-five Heads with Expressions [c. 1823-1838, Tourcoing, MUba Eugène Leroy] or his The Effect of Melodrama - ill. 11), the first is not really convincing except in the case of two grisaille portraits with broken glass and also two superb still-lifes (White Grapes and Black Grapes, Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts) where the painter’s virtuosity renders the presence of the grapes, through his treatment of the volumes as well as the perfection of the colors, truer than life.
The excellent catalogue with impeccable essays and commentaries reinforces the effect of this very beautiful and fascinating exhibition which, as it does not follow in the tradition of dogmatic events (we refer to the Champaigne exhibition) or heavily problematic themes (let us remember the marvelous Portraits de la pensée, see the article in french), is, rather, an extension of the work pursued by the museum in Lille : stating the problem of pictorial aesthetics between mimesis and illusion, and the relationship here between realism and caricature, in other words, transforming a retrospective into an in-depth study of its problematics.

Curators : Annie Scottez-de Wambrechies and Florence Raymond.

Collective work, Boilly (1761-1845), Editions Nicolas Chaudun, 2011, 288 p., 39 €. ISBN : 9782350391250

Visitor information : Palais des Beaux-Arts, Place de la République, 59000 Lille. Tel : +33 (0)3 20 06 78 00. Open every day except Tuesday from 10am to 6pm and Mondays from 2pm to 6pm. Rates : 5.50€ (full price), 3.80€ (reduced).

Version française

Daniel Couty, jeudi 17 novembre 2011


[1] Jacques Foucart, “Grand ou petit Maître ?” in the exhibition catalogue, pp. 23-33.

[2] These "small portraits executed with great agility and a rare promptness in seizing a resemblance" are estimated to have been "4,500 well accounted for" in the Boilly auction catalogue of 1829. Some biographers suppose there are five hundred more. Often in private collections, unidentified (except when an inscription appears on the back of the work), it seems impossible to provide an exact number.

[3] We would hesitate to express any reservations concerning the preparation of a setting which required over 20 projects, constantly revised due to the demands for the hang. However, we would venture to suggest that, as the lighting for the drawings should be less intense than for the paintings, it would have been wiser to adjust the spacing on the walls so as to allow a more direct juxtaposition of the sketches and the canvases, a feature which accounts for one of the more successful elements and most interesting points of the exhibition in Lille.

[4] It seems that these "grisailles" were produced systematically after Boilly’s color canvases and were contemporary to the traditional engravings which he thus wished to produce in oil on canvas.

[5] Denounced by his compatriot Jean-Baptiste Wicar, he was cleared of any suspicion after appearing before the Société républicaine des Arts en floréal An II (May-June 1894). Recounted by one of his sons, the legend saying that The Triumph of Marat was painted to atone for his civic errors circulated for many years. Although he never actively supported any conflicts among the factions, Boilly did however paint the portrait (no doubt late in 1789, true) of Robespierre (Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts).

[6] Taken from Annie Scottez-De Wambrechies in her entry devoted to this painting in the catalogue, p. 143.

[7] Sylvain Laveissière, "L’Atelier d’Isabey : un Panthéon de l’amitié" in Boilly : un grand peintre français de la Révolution à la Restauration (the catalogue for the exhibition in Lille, 1988, under the supervision of Annie Scottez-De Wambrechies. In the preliminary essay of the catalogue for the current exhibition, "Pourquoi une exposition Boilly" (pp. 15-20), the curator of both of the Boilly shows underscores the full meaning and originality of today’s exhibition.

[8] Let us recall, without quoting here from our many articles on the subject, that the pertinence of aesthetic terms which imply a presumption of the ensuing development of a movement are absolutely devoid of any pertinence. It is possible, in all logic, to be post-, neo- or para-. But never pre-.

[9] Paul Marmottan, Le Peintre Louis Boilly, 1913. We should remember that Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740-1814) wrote a Tableau de Paris (11 vol., 1781-1790), blending objective descriptions and subjective opinions about everyday life in Paris.

[10] Between the time of the General Study in black chalk from the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille and the final canvas from Chicago, Boilly slily snuck in one of the twin churches on the Piazza Santa Maria del Popolo into the background, a way of playing once again with the reality of a scene to prove his work is as creative as it is mimetic...

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