Description: Fillette dans un champ de coquelicots signed and dated 'H. Gervex 86' (lower left) oil on canvas 25 1/2 x 18 in. (65 x 46 cm.)
Artist or Maker: Henri Gervex (French, 1852-1929)
Notes: This hitherto unknown canvas, which does not appear in the archives drawn up by artist's widow most probably left the artist's studio very soon after its execution.
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Dating from 1886, the work was painted at a turning point in the artist's career. A student of Cabanel at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Henri Gervex was pushed into the Parisian limelight in 1879 by the scandal provoked by his painting Rolla, the realism of which was deemed improper. By 1886 he had reached the height of social and worldly success. His decorations for the town hall of the 19th arrondissement in Paris reconciled the young artist with the artistic authorities, but he nevertheless remained critical of the Salon and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The elegant Gervex - the inspiration behind the succesful artist Fagerolles in the novel L'Oeuvre by Emile Zola published in 1886 - affirmed his affiliation with the modern art movement by publicly defending the work of his Impressionist elders, and particularly that of Edouard Manet, who had died in 1883; with his colleague Fernand Humbert he also founded his own art academy. The present lot is a perfect example of how this influence was spread to a new generation of artists, of whom Gervex's pupil Jacques-Emile Blanche and the Spanish painter Ignacio Zuloaga are among the best examples.
However much Gervex towed a safe line with his public commissions, as the relationships that he forged in Paris and Normandy bear witness, Gervex himself was fully immersed in the modern world of the time, in particular as it related to the fine arts and to literature. The artist travelled to Italy with Guy de Maupassant in 1885 and regularly stayed with Jacques-Emile Blanche's family in Dieppe where he met Edgar Degas, who depicted him in his pastel Six amis. Open to new influences, Gervex also mingled with the colony of English artists who stayed in Normandy at the time, and regularly travelled to London.
The present work clearly shows how Gervex was influenced by his Normandy friendships and particularly by his desire to break with the official art of the time. The landscape in the present lot - a view from the coastal cliffs near Dieppe, Trouville or Villerville, perhaps even from one of the many houses where the artist stayed - was painted in a rapid manner, with strong impasto, and an impressionistic touch, which recalls the skies and lightly sketched outlines of Eugène Boudin, or even more Claude Monet and his depictions of poppy fields.
In contrast, the little girl is carefully built up with layers of coloured varnish, in the style that Gervex had learned at the art academy, and the lighting on her figure is similar to that used in an artist's studio. The girl could be the child of the patron who commissioned the canvas, or perhaps the daughter of one of the artist's friends or models. There is a resemblance to the little girl depicted in the painting Bureau de bienfaisance (1883, town hall of the 19th arrondissement in Paris). Despite the realism of the composition, the thoughtful attitude of the child, her timid gestures, the presence of red poppies in her hands and around her, and the general atmosphere of the canvas, all bring the work closer to Symbolism than to Impressionsim. The present painting therefore shows that while Gervex was forging ahead with a modern style, he was doing so in a uniquely original and sensitive way.
This work will be included in the forthcoming Gervex catalogue raisonné being prepared by Jean-Christophe Pralong-Gourvennec.
We are grateful to Jean-Christophe Pralong-Gourvennec for preparing this catalogue entry.
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