Fernand Pelez. La parade des humbles

Fernand Pelez. The humble file by.

Paris, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, from 24 September to 17 January 2010.

1. Fernand Pelez (1848-1913)
Adam and Eve, 1876
Oil on canvas - 194.5 x 172 cm
Moulins, Musée départemental Anne de Beaujeu
Photo : Jean-Louis Losi

In December 1913, a few months after he died, Fernand Pelez’ friends and family organized a retrospective of his work in his sumptuous workshop, at the foot of Montmartre : half a century of an artistic career, with its eclipses, was summed up in seventy-six pieces. It was focused skillfully on the outcasts which had helped to make his fortune as of 1883, before then diminishing it for a long while. On the catalogue cover, the figure of a turn-of-the century urchin, wearing a man’s threadbare jacket, which seems to float on him, was accompanied by a single word written in urban graffiti style : Misère ! Invoking Victor Hugo’s famous novel served as the equivalent of a posthumous manifesto. In fact, literary metaphors came easily to Pelez when writing to the authorities. Thus in 1901, in the midst of serious setbacks, he addressed a letter to the Parisian city hall in significant terms : “Since the day I decided to recount the fate of the poor in Paris the canvas I sent every year to the Salon presented, in my thinking, the image of a book or a work which could only be explained once put together and completed.” To recount something is not to denounce it : feeling sorry for the lot of beggars corresponds to a sound sentimentalism and secular charity, not to radical militancy in his case. Born in 1848, the same year as Gauguin, Pelez inherited the same social, very much Christian, humanitarianism but which these two artists applied in different ways. The fate of Pelez’ painting has more to do with the changes which took over the Salon during the III Republic, before and after 1879. A beautiful tribute to a misunderstood and unpredictable artist, the large exhibition at the Petit Palais does a fine job of placing his career choices in perspective.

The curator, Isabelle Collet, has not forgotten that the first Pelez was very different from the one which has come down to us thanks in part to Seurat’s unintentional sponsorship [1]. The first two rooms in the exhibition revive the forgotten beginnings of one of Cabanel’s students, a member of a wealthy family which finally succumbed to the threat of falling to a lower social class. The artist’s future iconographic choices were perhaps determined by his parents’ financial situation, suddenly deprived of their comfortable revenues. His father had a certain talent at drawing and joined the ranks of Romantic illustrators in the most modern vein. A Charlet or a Gavarni in minor version, is not to be scoffed at. His sons learned quickly. Fernand exhibited at the Salon of 1866. The jury which refused Manet’s Fife Player admired his pleasant sketch in the manner of a hazy Corot, if we are to believe the catalogue listing of the work in the booklet. The following year, he started preparing for the entrance exams to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Félix Barrias. After three years, a few months before Sedan, he was in. Cabanel became his second master. The Prix de Rome eluded him despite his continuous attempts. The remaining choices were the Salon and government purchases. Four of these, a wonderful surprise, have been brought together at the Petit Palais, cleaned, impressive in their youthful power which comes through the well learned rhetoric. Besides the references to Cabanel, quite obvious in Adam and Eve (ill. 1), and the more masculine models, Lenepveu and Barrias, there is an additional note of less academic chromaticism, reflecting the impact of a Regnault or perhaps Manet. One immediately thinks of the latter on seeing Christ Insulted by the Soldiers from the Salon of 1877. The violence of the Romans surrounds Christ, neurasthenic, strangely nude [2]. The Archers, in 1875, exploits the erotic vein of the handsome ephebes dear to Gérôme and others.

2. Fernand Pelez (1848-1913)
Without Roof, 1883
Oil on canvas - 136 x 236 cm
Paris, Petit Palais
Photo : Petit Palais/Roger-Viollet

The adolescent figures were to adapt to the thematic break of 1880. The parenthesis provided by the Republic of dukes having closed, interest then turned to social themes, the praise of labour, motherhood and fraternity between the classes. At the Public Wash-house, which magnifies two robust women of the working class with Rembrandt-like accents, earned a first-class medal for the artist ; it consecrated the now accepted fusion, made it official even, of historical painting and genre scenes, encouraging Pelez to exploit the Naturalism of the Salon which had already approved Bastien-Lepage, a former member of the Cabanel workshop. Isabelle Collet has gathered some canvases, drawings and engravings from 1830-1840 around this inaugural work : a large Bonnefond in the style of Schnetz, a Charity by Flandrin and a Young Beggar after Delaroche. Although the juxtaposition of form may seem surprising, the continuity in the inspiration is really there. The presence of a famous painting by Antigna, with mistaken title and date in our opinion, is more justified [3]. The same subdued palette, the same monumental treatment of the body, somewhere between empathy and emphasis, the same concern for social issues in the theatrical expressions and gestures of Greuze. If this is in fact Antigna’s work sent to the Salon of 1849, then The Widow is a direct foreshadowing of Without a Roof (ill. 2) by Pelez, successfully exhibited at the Salon in 1883. A mother cast out into the streets, older than her age and overcome by despair, looks out at us as insistently as the Fates. She is surrounded by five small children, the youngest feeding on a slack breast which the artist unveils modestly. Pelez manages to condense here in one image most of the themes which he will highlight individually in the rest of his work. When reading the provenances of the paintings displayed, the child in tatters, selling fruit or flowers, found a buyer more easily than the more ambitious pieces. In some of his paintings, the hushed harmony of warm browns and pearl greys, allows us to forget their repetitive “miserabilisme” [4].

3. Fernand Pelez (1848-1913)
Vachalcade, c. 1896-1900
Oil on canvas - 188 x 245 cm
Paris, Petit Palais
Photo : Petit Palais/Roger-Viollet

4. Fernand Pelez (1848-1913)
The Dancers, 1905-1909
Oil on canvas - 163 x 340 cm (in two parts)
Paris, Petit Palais
Photo : Petit Palais/Roger-Viollet

As we can well imagine, current taste favors the more biting compositions, notably those which pull the entertainment world and its performers into the cruel and more realistic microcosm of a period which harshly ignored the excluded. Grimacing and Misery in 1888 moves us by its bitter sobriety and its screwball gigantism ; Vachalcade (ill. 3) of 1896-1900 is almost by a French Ensor ; Seurat would be more appropriately evoked before The Morose Dansers (ill. 4) of 1905-1909 and The Young Extras of 1911-1913. As the form progressively affirms itself in his art, he rids it of the ambiguous aspects of social realism. At the same time, the Christian elements begin to predominate. His project for a Chapel in 1901, hesitating between Charles Cottet and Maurice Denis, appears less unique when placed in the context of concord characteristic of the 1890’s, with the Republic under threat and an enlightened Papacy in the background [5]. Isabelle Collet does a fine job of illustrating this, the government’s message now makes more room for the theme of public assistance and aid to the needy. Unlike Jules Adler, Pelez did not paint the workers in ire, or on strike, but God’s consolation and an organized Providence. Péladan was not wrong in writing that the artist did not fall “into the sentiments of Vallès : […] he was moved by pity, not by revolt.” It is important to recall that this great Symbolist critic attempted, as early as 1891, to include Pelez in the Salon de la Rose-Croix. Stylistically, the painter had thus come a long way since his beginnings in Cabanel’s workshop. But this final transformation was not enough to convince the intimidating judge at the Musée du Luxembourg, the very refined Léonce Bénédite. The immense Humanity at the Salon of 1896, enough to intimidate the curator, was not purchased as was also the case for the other canvases still available after he died. A profitable transaction for his heirs however, allowed the city of Paris to acquire a large part of his workshop holdings. A painter of “the resigned margins of society” (Ségolène Le Men), without a doubt. Pelez leaves however a more sensitive, more creative and more pertinent “book” than expected. By reuniting all of the pages, this exhibition has achieved its goal.

local/cache-vignettes/L115xH179/Couverture_Pelez-80500.jpgCollective work, Fernand Pelez, la parade des humbles, Editions Paris-Musées, 2009, 191 pages, 37€, ISBN : 9782759601004.

A remarkable catalogue under the guidance of Isabelle Collet, with contributions by Pierre Rosenberg, of the Académie française, Dominique Lobstein, Ségolène Le Men, Alain Bonnet, Jean-Pierre Sanchez, Guillaume Kazerouni, Dominique Morel, Pierre Sérié, Charles Villenueve de Janti and Jean-Baptiste Woloch.

Visitor information : Musée des Beaux-Arts de la ville de Paris, Petit Palais, avenue Winston Churchill, 75008 Paris. Phone : +33(0)1 53 43 40 00. Open every day except Mondays and holidays from 10h to 18h. Evening hours on Thursdays until 20h. Entrance rate : 8€ (full price), 6€ (discount price), 4€ (half-price).

Version française

Stéphane Guégan, jeudi 22 octobre 2009


[1] The late lamented Robert Rosenblum enjoyed comparing Pelez and Seurat due to their common interest in the theme of amusement fairs, see his “Fernand Pelez, or the Other Side of the Post-Impressionist Coin”, Art of the ape of nature, Studies in honor of H. W. Janson, New York, 1981, pp. 707-718.

[2] See the fine passage which Emmanuelle Amiot-Saulnier devotes to Pelez in La Peinture religieuse en France 1873-1879, Musée d’Orsay editions, 2007, notably pp. 105-107.

[3] Concerning Antigna’s painting at the Musée de Remiremont, see our correction in Stéphane Guégan,Théophile Gautier. La critique en liberté, Paris, Musée d’Orsay/RMN editions, 1997, pp. 52-53.

[4] On this point, Un martyr. Le Marchand de violettes (Salon de 1885, Musée du Petit Palais), which Dominique Lobstein is right in comparing to the Young Pedlar Sleeping by Bastien-Lepage (1882, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tournai,) is the best choice of those selected on this theme.

[5] About this question, see the decisive book by Richard Thomson The Troubled Republic. Visual Culture and Social Debate in France, 1889-1900, Yale University Press, 2004.

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