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Emile Renouf (1845 - 1894)

Lot 127: Emile Renouf (French, 1845-94)


February 12, 1997
New York, NY, US

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"UN COUP DE MAIN'' (THE HELPING HAND) signed and dated 81 oil on canvas 60 by 89 in. 152.4 by 226.1 cm. For over one hundred years, The Helping Hand, Emile Renouf's greatest work, captivated visitors to Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Collection with: its charming subject-the silent concord between an aging fisherman and his young helper, the skillful handling of its composition and detail, and its sheer size (5 by 7 feet). It became an icon of French 19th century academic art in the nation's capital as well as across the nation, primarily through the widespread distribution of the engraving after the painting which popularly hung in American classrooms. After its sale in these rooms in 1988 (October 27, Lot 152), The Helping Hand was returned on loan to Washington by the present owner to hang once again in the Grand Salon of the Renwick Gallery, the first location of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, as part of a special anniversary exhibition. There, its overwhelming appeal to viewing audiences was revived and The Helping Hand, a former "Washington landmark'', once again won the hearts of visitors. The appeal of The Helping Hand extends back to its native shores where it was painted in Paris in 1881. It was Renouf's primary submission to the Paris salon that year, along with a second canvas, Apres un coup de vent. The Helping Hand's success was immediate, as documented by the many unanimously positive opinions published by contemporary French art critics, which elevated an already established Renouf to greater heights within the notoriously discerning Parisian art establishment. The Helping Hand was sold that same year, on the wave of its success at the Paris Salon, to an American, William Schaus, of New York, beginning its American "odyssey''. The Helping Hand's second owner, another New Yorker, George I. Seney, is documented by the American Art Gallery's (a Sotheby's predecessor firm) 1885 sale catalogue of his collection. Edward Strahan describes Mr. Seney in his Art Treasures of America as "a philanthropist and a liberal art-patron...[with a] very select gallery.'' (Strahan, p. 124) Auspiciously, The Helping Hand was purchased from the Seney sale by The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. The Corcoran Gallery, founded by the financier, William W. Corcoran (1798-1888), was at the time of the Seney sale, an aggressive buyer of top European and American paintings. After its purchase, The Helping Hand was hung at the Corcoran Collection's first gallery, a mansard-roofed mansion at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street, built between 1859-71 and now named after its architect, James Renwick. Although The Helping Hand was transferred to the Corcoran's second and larger location on New York Avenue, completed in 1897, The Helping Hand was returned to its original Renwick Gallery location in 1971 on the occasion of its restoration to its former Second Empire elegance. For the subject of The Helping Hand, Renouf chose an old weather-worn fisherman seated with a young girl, perhaps his daughter or grand-daughter, in a fishing boat heaped with tarpaulin, fishing nets and line. Together they row silently but in harmony with a single oar through calm waters in a placid sea. The theme of "the sea and the people who wrested their livelihood from it provided one of the most popular themes for artists of the late nineteenth century. In Paris at the Salon exhibition of 1881, where Renouf first showed this painting, art critics devoted a special section of their reviews to paintings associated with "La Mer.'' Displayed in the Salon galleries with The Helping Hand, a number of paintings-some just as large as Renouf's 60 by 89-inch canvas-showed sailboats on the horizon, fisherfolk hauling nets... onto the beach or into their boats, beachcombers in tattered clothes harvesting the flotsam and jetsam washed ashore, women and children at the edge of the water or by a cliff watching for returning husbands and fathers. These paintings of the 1880s, with their focus on human activities, differ from earlier Romantic works by marine painters such as Joseph Vernet and Joseph Mallord Turner, where an immensity of sea and sky overwhelms diminutive human figures. In contrast to the dramatic storms and shipwrecks often favored by those painters, late-century artists were more apt to depict [the repetitive physical toil and peril] of men, women, and children whose lives were inextricably bound by the bounty and hardships of the sea. The crossing of rivers or going out to sea has ever been a powerful metaphor for changes in the course of life-even for the transition from life to death. The 1880s and 1890s...were filled with radical social and economic changes brought on by an astounding array of inventions and technological advances. Fin-de-siecle artists, poets, and composers exploited the metaphor of water and the poetic moods of the sea to an extent hardly equaled in the history of art.'' (Fink) Emile Renouf studied in his native city of Paris under three leading figure painters, Gustave-Rodolphe Boulanger and Jules-Joseph LeFebvre at the Academie Julian, and with Emile-Aguste Carolus-Duran. From this formal academic training, Renouf developed his brilliant understanding of the human figure. Following his debut at the Paris Salon of 1870, he was awarded his first medal (medaille de deuxieme classe) in 1880 for La veuve. However, "The Helping Hand must have been one of Renouf's personally most esteemed paintings, for at his request the Corcoran sent the picture to the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris...where Renouf received a gold medal and was [subsequently] created a chevalier in the Legion of Honor, France's highest decoration.'' (Fink) "Even more important to the fame of The Helping Hand is the fact that it was widely reproduced. Often included as one of the few works illustrated in catalogues of the Corcoran's permanent collection, it appeared also in many popular publications-on the cover of church bulletins and literary periodicals, in travel articles about Washington, in textbooks, on the walls of grammer schools, in hospital corridors, and even adapted for use in political cartoons.'' (Fink) Provenance: William Schaus, New York (acquired from the artist) George I. Seney, Brooklyn (sale, American Art Galleries, "Chickering Hall,'' New York, April 2, 1885, Lot 264) Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (acquired in 1885; sale, Sotheby's, New York, October 27, 1988, Lot 152) Acquired by the present owner at the above sale Exhibited: Paris, Salon de 1881, No. 1989 (as Un coup de main) Brooklyn, Brooklyn Art Association, 1887 Paris, Exposition Universelle, 1889 (gold-medal winner) Louisville, Kentucky, Louisville Expostion, 1893 Birmingham, Alabama, The Alabama State Fair and Birmingham Art Club, 1948 Los Angeles, Municipal Art Gallery, Old Favorite Revisited, 1959, No. 36, illustrated Washington, D.C., Renwick Gallery of the National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Paintings in the Grand Salon and Octagon Room of the Renwick Gallery lent by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1974, No. 21, cover illustration Washington, D.C., Renwick Gallery of the National Collection of Fine Art, Smithsonian Institution (on periodic loan 1988-96) Literature: Edmond About, Le Decameron du Salon de Peintre pour l'annee 1881, Paris, p. 117, "...The Helping Hand...we are shown a young lassie of the old fishing- world who rows or tries to row with her father. The theme is charming. The two heads are well-drawn and painted, the scene happy and gay...'' J. Buisson, Salon de de Peinture et de Sculpture, Paris, 1881, p. 74 Louis Enault, Guide du Salon de Paris 1881, Paris, 1881, p. 18, "...energie et naivete.'' (...with power and simplicity) Maurice du Seigneur, L'Art et les Artistes au Salon de 1881, Paris, 1881, pp. 201-2, "...M. Emile Renouf has had tremendous success with his painting La Veuve (The Widow), and we have good reason to expect equal success for Le Coup de main; at minimum the former must share its limelight and the viewers's affections.-In my opinion, however, there is evident progress from the previous work-especially if one considers the careful execution of the details of this year's work; although this refined finish teeters on the brink of the sweetness of Bouguereau... Mr. Renouf has enough talent to escape this danger and to be himself.'' L. de Veyran, "La Mer,'' L'Exposition des Beaux Arts (Salon 1881), Paris, 1881, p. 286 Edward Strahan, ed., The Art Treasures of America, Philadelphia, 1879-82, Vol. III, pp. 124, 126 Maurice Brincourt, L'exposition universelle de 1889, Paris, 1889 Catalogue Officiel de l'Exposition Universelle de 1889, Lille, 1889 Walton William, Chefs-d'oeuvre de l'Exposition Universelle de Paris, Philadelphia, 1889 The Literary Digest, Vol. 81, No. 8, May 24, 1924, cover illustration Victor Flambeau, "Favorite Picture of Visitors to Corcoran Gallery is the Helping Hand,'' The Washington Times, April 1, 1922, "Emile Renouf...author of painting that is Shrine for thousands who come to Washington's Picture Galleries...'' Leila Mechlin, "Art Notes: Corcoran Gallery Exhibits Famous French Paintings,'' The Sunday Star, July 26, 1942, illustrated, "The Helping Hand, by Emile Renouf, considered the most popular painting in the Corcoran Gallery of Art....There is something very touching in the expression of the face of the old man and charming about the attitude of the little lass...The thing expressed is elemently human and the mode of expression is so genuinely good that it passes without remark.'' Edward Parks, Treasures of the Smithsonian, Washington, D.C., 1983 Sarah Booth Conroy, "Helping Hand for Sale, Corcoran Work Among 28 to Be Auctioned'', The Washington Post, August 25, 1988, "...Helping Hand, Michael Monroe, curator in charge of the Renwick Gallery said the poignant painting is familiar to generations because reproductions of it often hang in classrooms. "Someone asked about it every day, and they drew in their breath when they saw the real painting.'' Judd Tully, "Six Corcoran Works Sold for $1.65 Million in N.Y.,'' The Washington Post, October 28, 1988, illustrated, "Emile Renouf's huge oil painting The Helping Hand, which hung for years in Washington's Renwick Gallery, sold for $137500, a record for the artist....It has great emotional impact.'' In The Artnewsletter, November 1, 1988 (for discussion of the present work) Lois Marie Fink, The Helping Hand: A Painting and its Public, (exhibition catalogue), Washington, D.C., 1992, illustrated Annette Blaugrund, Paris 1889. American Artist's at the Universal Exposition, Philadelphia and New York, 1989.

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