George Desvallières (1861-1950) is one of those bygone French painters blessed with a long, successful career but whose work has been more or less forgotten. The reason may be that, although he was a highly talented painter who absorbed many of the trends of his day, he never really found a style of his own that stood out from the rest. There is much to enjoy, however, in the retrospective of his work, “George Desvallières: La Peinture Corps et Âme,” currently on show at the Petit Palais in Paris.
The exhibition gets off to a strong start with the painting used on the poster: “La Grèce (Childe Harold)” (1910), in which a rather massive female nude representing Greece and
inspired by Lord Byron’s poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” fills the canvas, posing pensively against the backdrop of a Mediterranean landscape. Its jewel-like colors and clearly defined shapes immediately bring stained glass to mind. More on that later.
The exhibition then reverts to a chronological presentation. The early works show great talent, notably a powerful self-portrait, “Autoportrait Bleu au Foulard Rouge” (c. 1880) of the intense young artist, the dark tones of the work set off by the scarlet scarf he wears. Touches of red – the flowers on the hat she holds – also accent a lovely full-length Sargent-like portrait of the artist’s sister Georgina standing in a forest. Another is the mysterious “Un Coin de Salon” (1891), which reminded me of certain works by Edgar Degas with its unusual point of view: we see only the top half of the head of the baldheaded man who is playing an upright piano and the head and shoulders of the woman standing next to him singing. Another woman stands in front of the piano, her back to us and one knee posed on a red chair. The faces of all three are lit from below by an unseen source of light. The models for this work were the artist’s wife Marguerite, his father, Émile Desvallières, and Claire Lefebvre. The two women were students of composer César Franck.
The next stage of Desvallières’ work shows the influence of his mentor Gustave Moreau and is touched by the muddy colors and classical themes of the master of Symbolism. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, the artist was already moving away from Moreau’s influence. The next room, full of nudes, sparkles with the jewel-like colors we saw in “La Grèce.” In one of them, “Hercule au Jardin des Hespérides” (1913), the mythical hero reaches up to pluck a fruit from a tree, his arms and legs looking like extra roots and branches. Although it was painted earlier, the masterful large-scale “Les Tireurs d’Arc” (1895), which appeared in the Musée d’Orsay’s exhibition on
male nudes in 2013, could have been shown in this section. It is a symphony of naked men and birds in movement, linked by the arcs of the men’s blue bows.
After a series of delightful portraits, including ladies in their salons and Lautrec-ian ladies of the evening, as well as a Whistler-like a portrait of his mother in profile, we reach the major turning point in Desvallières’ life, World War I, during which he served as a captain and lost one of his sons. He had already returned to the Catholic faith in 1904 and painted many religious subjects – his “Christ à la Colonne” (1910; pictured above), with its Caravagesque lighting, painted after a visit to Spain and showing the striking influence of the Spanish masters, is one of the strongest in this show – but after this tragic period, he devoted himself exclusively to paintings and stained glass with religious themes, many of them expressing the pain of his loss.
Until the war came, Desvallières seems to have led a charmed life: he came from a cultured milieu – his grandfather and great-grandfather were both members of the French Academy – and was taught by and associated with some of the leading artists of his day. Happily married with six children, he successfully exhibited his work throughout his life and held a number of prestigious positions in the art world, including president of the Academy of Fine Arts and president of the Salon d’Automne. He used these positions to fight for the rights of Jews and “degenerate artists” (among them Georges Braque) to exhibit in the Salon d’Automne under the Occupation, and to campaign for peace. From what I can tell, he was quite a mensch. He deserves better treatment by posterity and may now get it thanks to this exhibition.
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