Fernand Pelez’s important contribution to French painting in the late 19th century has only recently been brought to light. In 2009, he was the subject of a monographic retrospective at the Petit Palais in Paris in a show titled: Fernand Pelez – La parade des humbles. Earlier, he had been singled out for a reevaluation by the eminent art historian, Robert Rosenblum, in “Fernand Pelez or the Other Side of the Post-Impressionist Coin,” the essay Rosenblum wrote in honor of Horst Janson ( The Ape of Nature, New York, 1981). What was it about Pelez that drew the attention of such a brilliant mind as Robert Rosenblum?
As an Academically trained painter, who boasted Alexandre Cabanel as his teacher, Pelez’s earliest works focused on traditional Salon subjects. However, beginning in the 1880s, Pelez shifted his focus to paint scenes of extraordinary realism, or snapshots of the impoverished members of society that he saw everywhere around him.
With his paintings of beggars, homeless families and circus performers, Pelez succeeded in conveying a genuine pathos that was unprecedented in prior interpretations of similar subjects, and this is what distinguished him from his contemporaries and today strikes a nerve when we contemplate his paintings.
A critical review of Pelez’s works included in the 1889 Exposition Universelle elicted this commentary from the British critic, Philip Gilbert Hamerton, “of all modern French painters, it is certainly M. Pelez whose sympathy with the suffering classes expresses itself with the most poignant force.”
Perhaps it was Pelez’s mastery of the Academic technique that has disqualified him as being considered an innovator, but the recent call for a reevaluation of his work is serving to erase the boundaries of what has previously been considered unacceptable in the predictable canon of nineteenth century French art.
When future generations of art historians reconstruct these years [later 19th century painting], may they not forget Fernand Pelez! – Robert Rosenblum, The Ape of Nature, 1981