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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Jean Tabaud

Child with Fishbowl, Jean Tabaud
Wild-Haired Beauty, Jean Tabaud
When it comes to pencil portraits, I've probably done more of them than just about anyone I know. Of course, there's nothing new about portraits drawn in pencil. They likely go back to shortly after the invention of the pencil around 1560. It took a while, but after a few centuries the pencil gradually replaced the soft, dirty, fragility of charcoal as artists' favored drawing medium. Even at that, for many long years most faces done in pencil were preliminary sketches for paintings. It wasn't until the past hundred years or so that faces drawn with graphite were viewed as works of art in their own right. Even as late as the 1980s and 90s, when I was doing mostly pencil portraits, it used to bother me when people referred to my work as pencil "sketches." Sketches suggest images created quickly, often quite spontaneously, usually from life. My pencil portraits were none of that, drawn as they were from photos taken specifically for that purpose, and often taking an hour or two to render. Spon-taneous, they were not. In many respects, my pencil portraits were much like those of the French artist, Jean Tabaud (above, left, though more modestly attired).

Jean Tabaud the dancer.
If the truth were known, quite a few artists didn't start out to be artists. Jean Tabaud was born in 1914 on the west coast of France in the small town of Saujon. His father was a butcher wounded in WW I. His son wanted to be a ballet dancer, training with the Ballets Russes, later performing in Paris, Tangier, Casa-blanca, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Brazil, and Argentina. However his dancing career came to an abrupt end when he suffered a spinal injury. Tabaud returned to France to seek treatment for his back. Instead he had a rendezvous with World War II. He was immediately drafted into the French Army just in time to witnessed the fall of France to Germany. Shortly after the fall of Paris in June of 1941, Tabaud was taken prisoner.

German Soldiers, Jean Tabaud, drawn while a prisoner of war.

Jean Tabaud Self-portrait
Ironically, Tabaud's second career began while he was a prisoner of War. While held by the Germans, Tabaud passed the time sketching portraits of his fellow prisoners. His natural talent was such that before long he was asked to do the same by guards, even the Commandant of the camp. Then, around 1944, Tabaud escaped from the camp, returning to Paris where he survived as a peripatetic artist, going from one café to another each night, drawing portraits of German soldiers, sailors, and airmen of all ranks, charging only a few francs each. He plied his trade, not only in Paris, but later in Le Havre and all along the Normandy coast. All the portraits he executed during this time were signed with the assumed name, Juvee. By the time Germany was defeated, Tabaud had executed over 5,000 wartime portraits. After the war, seeking to escape war-torn Europe, Tabaud traveled first to Majorca and then to Morocco, where he spent the next eight years. In northern Africa, Tabaud painted, but also established a school of dance, gave recitals, choreographed ballets, while writing articles on art and the dance.

Henry Miller, 1960s, Jean Tabaud
In 1953 Tabaud moved to the United States. He began in Hollywood, where he was immediately successful, drawing portraits from such stars as Charles Boyer, Deborah Kerr, John Wayne, and others. When the French Ambassador to Mexico visited Hollywood, he suggested Tabaud exhibit his works in Mexico City. There he met with considerable success. This was followed by two more exhibits in Monterrey and in Acapulco. Following several more critically acclaimed shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Tabaud moved to New York City in 1957, where he established a portrait studio. His painted portrait of the novelist, Henry Miller (left), was done during this period. Although Tabaud yearned to be a painter, he painted little, always searching for a style of his own, flirting with influences such as Picasso and Modigliani (below). During the 1960s, Tabaud eventually settled on the slender vertical portrait image in which, as with his pencil portraits, he placed primary emphasis on the face occupying the upper part of the canvas, minimalizing the body and the compositional elements of the lower portion of the painting.

In addition to portrait painting, Tabaud experimented with various schools of art, most notably Cubism, and several different techniques and media. In addition to oils on canvas or canvas board, Tabaud tried colored pen, watercolors, pastels, charcoal, and melted crayon using a scratched pen technique. He was strongly influenced by Impressionism, especially Renoir and Monet, but also Corot, Van Gogh, and later Modigliani. The influence of Gauguin can sometimes be detected in his Moroccan paintings. Tabaud's Pyramid Man (below) and his Child with Fishbowl (top), are typical of his cubist efforts.

Pyramid Man, Jean Tabaud
Sweet Child, Jean Tabaud
In 1980 Tabaud gave up his studio in New York City and settled just up the Hudson River in Pawling, New York. He traveled once a year to France to visit old friends. His family had mostly died in the war and he never married or had any children. Perhaps because of this, Tabaud very much enjoyed drawing and painting children, for which he had a empathetic knack. His drawing, Sweet Child (left), demonstrates his affinity for the female face regardless of age. Mostly, however, even in retirement, Tabaud preferred feminine beauty and glamour, often seen in large, multi-figured family portraits such as The Noël Girls (below, Corina, Lisina, Marisa, Alix, and Ariane). Jean Tabaud spent the last five years of his life battling Lyme disease, though he was not diagnosed until just three years before his death. Tabaud was also afflicted with cancer of the prostate, loss of hearing, and failing eyesight. He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on December 3, 1996. After his death the Village of Pawling changed the name of the winding dirt road leading to Tabaud's home from Gristmill Lane to Frenchman's Lane.

The Noël Girls, Jean Tabaud


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