Saturday, June 17, 2017

Jules Joseph Lefebvre

Scanning what I've put up on my blog lately, I thought, it's really time for a post on a painter from the past. I thought about someone from the Renaissance but couldn't find anything that grabbed me; ditto the Baroque. I ended up back at the art closest to my heart: 19th-century academic painting. I've already done my favorites (Alma-Tadema, Waterhouse, Sargent), but there are plenty of others. This painting in particular (Odalisque, 1878) grabbed my attention, so today we feature Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1836–1912).

I would tell you about Lefebvre, but really there isn't much to tell. He had exactly the career you would expect for a 19th-century French academic painter: École des Beaux-Arts, then a prestigious Prix de Rome scholarship to study in Italy, professorship at the Académie Julian, three gold medals in the Salon, member of the Légion d'honneur. Besides having one of the most common French names of the period, he also looked exactly like you would expect. Lefebvre even died in 1912, the perfect year for a figure from Europe's great era to take his leave of earth. (Girl with a Mandolin).

Like William-Adolphe Bouguereau and numerous other painters of that period, he had a thing for lovely young women. If you google Lefebvre and go to the images tab, the first three dozen pictures are all lovely young women. Which is not truly representative of his work – he did mythological scenes and many portraits of men – but on the other hand it isn't entirely unfair, either. My elder daughter and I were just joking about Lefebvre's great range: reclining women, standing women, historical women, Biblical women, mythical women, women with clothes, women without clothes, women partially dressed. . . . (Mary Magdelene at the Cave, 1875)

Portrait of the Prince Imperial, Eugene-Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1874. After his father Napoleon III was overthrown (in 1870), the Prince went to England, where he entered the army and ended up getting killed in the Zulu War, largely due to his own rashness. I've always found that quite perfect; I mean, what else was he going to do? And when you think in the big picture about European colonialism, some of it was driven by capitalists and strategic thinkers and other semi-rational people, but much of it was just young men whose violent energies drove them forth across the world looking for places unbound by the corset stays of 19th-century civilization, places of struggle and blood where they could cast aside their starched shirts and kill or die like men in stories. Never underrate this mad energy as a force in history.

Graziella, 1878. She was a character in a famous story by Alphonse de Lamartine, in which the protagonist falls in love with the daughter of a Neapolitan fisherman. (Note Vesuvius in the background). This was commissioned by a wealthy patroness, so in this case we can't blame the subject on Lefebvre's own obsessions.

Nymph with the Young Bacchus, 1866.

Morning Glory, 1879.

Portrait of M Fitzgerald, 1889.

Judith, 1892.

Young Woman with a Rose, 1901.

Yes, this one has a milquetoast look about her, but then she is supposed to be the Patient Griselda.

If I had to choose a time to live in before my own, I think it would the 19th-century Europe. At least I would be huge fan of the official art of my time, free from the alienation that grips me whenever I behold most 20th-century painting or architecture. Lefebvre and his colleagues had my idea of beauty, and of art. And I would choose to die in 1912, before the Great War turned the hopes of that world to dust.

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