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
Fernand Pelez. La parade des humbles
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 . 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 . The Archers, in 1875, exploits the erotic vein of the handsome ephebes dear to Gérôme and others.
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 . 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” .
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 . 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.
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).
Street Urchins: Paintings of Fernand Pelez
My next vanished Master is Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), in his time very popular with the public and critics, and highly successful. In 1981, the great Robert Rosenblum wrote about late nineteenth century painting: “When future generations of art historians reconstruct these years, may they not forget Fernand Pelez!”
Like the slightly younger Eugène Buland, Pelez trained under Alexandre Cabanel at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and was initially under his influence.
Pelez’s first works were also history paintings, such as The Death of the Emperor Commodus (1879). Commodus, who reigned over the Roman Empire from 177-192 BCE, was a larger than life character, aspired (foolishly) to be a gladiator, and a megalomaniac. He was assassinated by being strangled in his bath, after an earlier attempt to poison him had failed. He was so hated that after his death the Senate declared him a public enemy.
Pelez shows the professional wrestler who was paid to murder the emperor bent over the corpse just after the act. Behind them is the bath in which Commodus had been, and the killer is talking to a woman (probably a courtesan) who looks very surprised despite veiling most of her face.
In the early 1880s, Pelez changed direction completely, just as Buland was doing, and he started to paint some of the most moving portraits of the poor, comparable to those of Jules Bastien-Lepage.
This early portrait of a Sleeping Laundress (c 1880) is one of a group of works which showed poor women reclining. Another showed a young woman dead from asphyxiation. For all her obvious poverty, there is a faint smile on her face, as she enjoys a brief rest from her long hours of washing.
Most of Pelez’s paintings of the poor are much more unsettling, often frankly depressing. His Homeless from 1883 shows a worn and weary mother and her five children living on the street. She stares from sunken eyes straight at the viewer, as her children huddle in filthy blankets and sacking around her. Only the mother and her oldest daughter (who is presumably already at work) wear any shoes.
A Martyr – The Violet Vendor (1885) shows another child of the street, although here Pelez leaves great doubt as to whether we are looking at the boy asleep, or dead. One of the small bunches of violets has fallen from his tray. His eyes are closed, and his mouth agape.
I am sure that Pelez was very familiar with the paintings of Jules Bastien-Lepage, who had only died the previous year. I don’t know whether Pelez had seen The Blind Beggar (below). Although undated, it must have been painted some time between 1881-84, making it feasible that Pelez was here responding to Bastien-Lepage’s earlier work.
At the Salon in 1888, Pelez exhibited his most ambitious work yet: a vast five-section canvas over six metres (twenty feet) in length. This currently exists in two versions: one roughly half that size and less finished in parts, and the work exhibited, which is in the Petit Palais in Paris.
Above is the smaller version, and below the full-sized one.
Grimaces et misères: les Saltimbanques (Grimaces and Miseries: the Acrobats) follows the pattern of a traditional ‘ages of man’ image, in which the figures increase in stature from the start at the left edge, to the centre, then diminish again with advancing years, to the right. Les Saltimbanques had been a successful show in the theatre fifty years earlier, and had lived on in entertainments staged in fairs around France. Contemporary performers attested to the faithfulness and accuracy of Pelez’s painting.
Rosenblum summarises the painting as presenting “a glum view of the contrast between the goals of rousing entertainment in a popular Parisian circus troupe and the actual melancholy and isolation of the performers.”
Les Saltimbanques was featured and illustrated in the French weekly magazine l’Illustration, which also identified many of Pelez’s models, who were performers in fairs and circuses.
Pelez never repeated the success of Les Saltimbanques, and in subsequent Salons faded from public view. In 1896, he tried another monumental work, which was the last that he exhibited publically. He returned to his studio and lived the remainder of his life as a virtual recluse.
Pelez painted six different versions of The Little Lemon Vendor (c 1895-97), of which this is thought to have been the last. It was never shown in a Salon, despite its compelling imagery.
La Vachalcade (The Cow-valcade) (1896) is a reversal of a portrait of an affluent family by way of parody. Thirteen young revelers are taking part in a carnival procession, perhaps one of the Vachalcades which took place in Montmartre at the time. Some wear masks, others have the close-shorn hair characteristic of the poor, a measure against endemic parasites.
At the centre is a boy very similar to The Little Lemon Vendor, wearing an adult’s jacket and a huge hat. Behind him is a Pierrot character, and in the background a banner bearing the word Misère – misery. Dangling on that is a dead rat, a reference to a well-known café on the Place Pigalle.
The ‘vache’ (cow) in the title refers to the French phrase manger de la vache enragée, meaning to live in poverty.
In 1901, Pelez wrote a plea to the city of Paris to preserve his work as a whole, as each painting was a page in a book describing the story of the poor of the city. He died in his studio in 1913.
The smaller version of Les Saltimbanques recently sold at auction for almost half a million dollars, and Pelez had his first solo retrospective exhibition in 2009-10.
Richard Thomson (2012) Art of the Actual, Naturalism and Style in Early Third Republic France, 1880-1900, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 17988 0.