Two exhibitions about Paul Baudry

Paul Baudry 1828-1886. Portraits and nudes and Becoming a painter in the XIXth century : Baudry, Bouguereau, Lenepveu

1. William Bouguereau (1825-1905)
Zenobia Found by Shepherds on the
Banks of the Araxe
, 1850
Oil on canvas - 147 x 113 cm
Paris, Ensba
Photo : D. Rykner

The musee de La Roche-sur-Yon, which had remained closed for several years, organized at the end of 2007 its first major exhibition since the one devoted to Paul Braudy in 1986. The decorator of the Paris Opera was once again represented but this time accompanied by some of his fellow painters as the purpose was to highlight the path of young artists from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to the Prix de Rome.

We visited the exhibition during its final days and it, alas, has now ended but there still remains the small accompanying work which is better described as a book on the artists’ training than a catalogue per se.
Thanks to works belonging to the museum itself, to the Ecole nationale superieure des beaux-arts and to private collections, the hang enabled the visitor to better understand how painters learned their trade during the second half of the XIXth century, an education which enabled the luckier or more talented ones to attain the Prix de Rome. The five-year stay in the Italian capital would secure for them the best commissions once they had returned to Paris, or so they hoped.

2. Jules-Eugène Lenepveu (1819-1898)
The Community of Saint Roch in Venise Going to Saint Mark’s on God’s Feast Day
Oil on canvas - 71.5 x 101 cm
Angers, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : D. Rykner

The presentation at the show was a didactic one. It provided details of the different stages leading to the various contests and, ultimately, to the most prestigious of them all, the Grand Prix. Once in Rome, the winners, often confirmed artists in their late twenties, were once again subjected to the dictates of producing each year, according to a strictly defined program, works that were sent back to the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris to be judged. Among the displayed works, besides the Prix de Rome by Lenepveu, Baudry and Bouguereau, there were also numerous studies as well as copies after the masters, another imposed exercise. Before discussing Baudry further on, let us take a look at Bouguereau, a more endearing painter in his youth than later on, whose Prix de Rome [1] (ill. 1) could be admired here as well as the beautiful figure of Dedain (Paris, Ensba) and mention especially Jules-Eugene Lenepveu. Several of this artist’s paintings belong to the musee d’Angers which owns his workshop holdings and this was the perfect occasion to discover them as they are unfortunately rarely shown. The qualities of The Community of Saint Roch in Venise Going to Saint Mark’s on God’s Feast Day (ill. 2) are especially striking and remind us of the trips through Italy that the students at the Villa Medicis were allowed to take during their stay.
The catalogue correctly points out that obtaining the Prix de Rome did not guarantee a successful career. Many of the winners quickly faded from view whereas quite often “official” artists such as Horace Vernet and Paul Delaroche never had to bother competing for it. A successful showing at the Salon was thus sometimes an easier way to become famous than exiling oneself in Rome.

3. The exhibition Paul Baudry at the Historial de Vendée
Photo : D. Rykner

At almost the same time, but in no way connected, the musee Historial de la Vendee, a few kilometers from La-Roche-sur-Yon has organized another exhibition on Paul Baudry. The show does not consist only in presenting the portraits and nudes — the essential part of his work — but is in fact a veritable retrospective. The decors, including of course his major work, the Paris Opera, are depicted thanks to a film made especially for the occasion and by offering preliminary drawings and studies. As for the catalogue, it is sure to remain as the most complete study of the artist until now. The repertory includes all of the known portraits, not only those presented in the show, and also studies every aspect of the artist’s career. Although the Historial, at once an eco-museum, museum of popular and traditional art as well as a fine arts museum is housed in a very contemporary building made up of different spaces that can be adapted accordingly, the section devoted to the Baudry exhibition is arranged in a classical manner (ill. 3), providing a colored background which sets off the works superbly. There is a considerable number of paintings and drawings, several unpublished works that were rediscovered and some just recently acquired by the museum [2].

4. Paul Baudry (1828-1886)
Portrait of Jules Badin, 1880
Oil on anvas - 107 x 82 cm
Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : D. Rykner

Baudry is an important portrait artist who did not limit himself to a unique formula. He possessed a vast pictorial culture and found his inspiration in XVIth century Italian painting, as revealed by the portraits of Jules Badin (cat. 24 ; ill. 4) and that of Eugene Guillaume that reach out to the Florentine Mannerists, in Holbein who is reflected in the Portrait of Edmond About (cat. 29) or in Ingres as illustrated by the Portrait of Madeleine Brohan of the Comedie-Francaise (cat. 92) and that of M. de Verges (cat. 84). But the artist also knew how to be original. His models often stand out from pure-coloured backgrounds of green or blue and he does not hesitate to use his brush freely in stark opposition to the reigning “Academisme” : the Portrait of Mme Edmond About (cat. 38) is a perfect example.

Two masterpieces of this group are particularly noteworthy : the Portrait of Guizot (cat. 43) from the Musee de La-Roche-sur-Yon, an exceptional artistic achievement executed in a reduced palette of only three shades, and that of Charles Garnier (cat. 46 ; ill. 5), his friend to whom he will remain linked forever due to their fruitful collaboration at the Opera. Having commented on this décor along with a very complete photographic coverage at the time of its restoration (on La Tribune de l’Art), we will not dwell on it here.

5. Paul Baudry (1828-1886)
Portrait of Charles Garnier, 1868
Oil on canvas - 107 x 82 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : D. Rykner

6. Paul Baudry (1828-1886)
Venus at her Bath, 1859
Oil on canvas - 136 x 84 cm
Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : D. Rykner

During the Salon de 1863, two nudes attracted attention : The Pearl and the Wave by Paul Baudry, today held at the Prado, and The Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabanel (Musee d’Orsay). Baudry’s work, shown here (cat. 44), is unquestionably superior to that of his rival [3]. The display of the “nudes” reveals the other facet of the painter’s art, gallant or amorous mythology, a bit erotic, which earned Baudry the label of “pompier”, a term which in fact does not mean anything but throws together a group of first-class painters, including him, and others of lesser rank. It is easy to understand how the modern eye is turned off by such canvases as Fortune and the Young Child [4], although it reunites elements of Correggio, Titian and Leonardo da Vinci in an accomplished manner as the painter claimed, or Venus at her Bath (cat. 101 ; ill. 6). One should try to forget their superficial, overly gracious, aspect and admire the technique.

The ceiling for the entrance hall at the Opera which he executed by himself, without the help of a workshop much like Michelangelo working in the Sistine Chapel, as well as the rest of his oeuvre which is marked by a strong Italian influence, reflect Paul Baudry’s artistic ambition. Despite turning to the past, he is squarely anchored in the present, an example of a current that ran parallel to Impressionism. There is no need to oppose them and it is in fact absurd to do so. Today, people seem to be ready at last to study this painting. Paul Baudry, a native of the Vendee region who spent his professional career in Paris, was featured in La-Roche-sur-Yon and by the musee Hebert a few years ago in a small exhibition. Today he finally receives a retrospective with full honors confirming that he is undoubtedly an excellent French painter of the second half of the XIXth century.

Alain Bonnet, Véronique Goarin, Hélène Jagot and Emmanuel Schwartz, Devenir peintre au XIXe siècle. Baudry, Bouguereau, Lenepveu, Editions Fage, 2007, 128 p., 20 €. ISBN : 978-2-84975-061-2.

Christophe Vital (ed.), Paul Baudry 1828-1886. Les portraits et les nus, Somogy Editions d’Art, 2007, 320 p., 35. ISBN : 978-2-7572-0099-5.

Visitor Information : Historial de la Vendée, 85170 Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne. Phone : + 33 (0)2 51 47 61 61 Opened daily 10.00 - 18.00 (closed Monday). Admission : 10€ and 5€ Website

Didier Rykner, mercredi 30 janvier 2008


[1] He in fact won second place in the Grand Prix, after Paul Baudry, also allowing him to go to Rome.

[2] We will soon return to talk about the acquisitions made by the Historial de Vendee in a forthcoming News item.

[3] Unfortunately, practically the only canvas familiar to the public is Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus at the Musee d’Orsay, a truly mediocre work, by an otherwise excellent artist.

[4] Paris, Musee d’Orsay. The painting was not on display at the Historial but was at La-Roche-sur-Yon.

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