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Saturday, September 2, 2017

Leon Bazille Perrault

Sleeping Putto, 1882, Leon Bazile Perrault
The opinions of art connoisseurs and the general public, though not always running parallel, do have one thing in common. They are fickle. Back a couple hundred years ago, for instance, the highest level of painting significance was history painting. Many artists aspired to that calling but few ever had the patience, persistence, and painting skills demanded by those of the ruling classes to achieve much success. Today, few if any, painters other than those dealing with military content and exploits, would even think about painting history. Perhaps even more rare today is what was known as "symbolic genre." For the most part, artists today not only wouldn't paint it, they literally hate such work...or would, if they actually knew what it was.
The Death of Priam, 1861, Leon Bazille Perrault

The First Murder,
Leon Bazile Perrault
The French painter Leon Bazille Perrault started out wanting to paint history, battle scenes, coup d'états and the like. It wasn't that he lacked the skill to do so, he had, after all trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts under the legendary William Bouguereau and François-Edouard Pi-cot. The fact was, however, once Nap-oleon Bonaparte had ridden off into exile, and soon after, to that great bat-tlefield in the sky, no one much cared about history. There was so little of it for the French to be proud of. The French art world was, instead, wallowing in the sanitized nudity of mythology and, to a lesser extent, religious narrative art. (Af-ter you've painted Adam and Eve or their sons (left), it's hard to work much nudity into religious art.)
Leon Bazille Perrault and his genre works.
The symbolic genre he didn't catch on to until later.
Meditation (upper-right) is an early example.

Perrault needed something that would sell, win prizes, and bring him at least a modicum of fame. Taking a lesson from Raphael, Perrault found he could sell pictures of mothers and their children about as fast as he could paint them. Added to that he found a market for putti (mischievous little angels and cupids), and naked ladies--erotic but never indecent--so long as they had a symbolic or mythological reference in their titles.

Venus was the star of the shows at the annual male-dominated Salon. Women, especially mothers, preferred Perrault's symbolic genre
In 1832, Léon Jean Bazile Perrault was born in Poitiers, (west-central) France, into a very poor family. As a young boy, he dreamed of ways to produce income to free his family from the inconvenience of poverty. His foolish youthful dreams and impossible schemes to ease and escape the pain would bring young Léon to decide to pursue an artistic career. Just how he arrived at that decision is hard to imagine. He did, in fact, have more than his share of drawing talent. In any case, at the age of fourteen, Perrault began taking drawing courses in his hometown. His incredible ability at drawing was eventually spotted by a local painter who would hire this fourteen-year-old boy to help restore the paintings and murals in the churches and the ancient cathedral of Saint Radegonde in the Poitiers.

Perrault's titles were either obvious and content related, or such that they offered a moral dilemma (Out in the Cold) or symbolically taught some moral truth.
At the age of nineteen, Perrault took part in a drawing competition and won first place. The drawing was purchased by the state for their collection. Two years later, he traveled to Paris on a 600-franc pension provided by his hometown. With a letter of introduction, the young Perrault was welcomed into the home and atelier of Francois Edouard Picot. There he began his formal art training. Later he continued his studies at the French Academy, under William A. Bouguereau. He also joined the atelier and at the Académie Julian. The initial years of academic studies and training under the watchful eyes of Picot and Bouguereau profoundly influenced Perrault, stimulating his interest in allegorical and religious subjects.

Christ au Tombeau (Christ Entombed), 1863 Leon Perrault
Perrault made his debut in the Paris Salon of 1860 with Vieillard et les Trois Jeunes Hommes (Vieillard and the Three Young Men), inspired by a fable in La Fontaine. The painting now hangs in the Poitiers Museum. Perrault went on to become an important figure and regular exhibitor at the salons of Paris. He continued to exhibit religious, allegorical, historical, and military battle scenes. He had enormous success with his Christ au Tombeau (above) and la Descente de Croix (The Descent from the Cross) at the Salon of 1863. Perrault won award metals in 1864, 1876 and 1878.

It would seem that either Perrault or his buyers (or both) had
a special liking for young girls (especially those with cats).
Perrault first began to exhibit his symbolic genre paintings of peasant children at the Salon of 1864. The critics were overwhelmed by the passion, beauty and honesty rarely seen in genre subjects. He would continue to exhibit his popular symbolic genre paintings at the Salons in Paris receiving acclaim from all continents. In 1887, Perrault's lovely little ladies (with or without their clothes), won him Frances’s highest honor. He was knighted as a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. This prestigious honor was followed by a Bronze metal in the 1889 Exhibition Universal and a Silver medal at 1900 Exhibition Universal. Perrault died in Royan, France in 1908, whereupon the city built a monument in his honor.

Perrault would appear to have been quite shrewd in offering
paintings of female nudes for the men and chaste young mothers with their children for his female clients.
Today few, if any, artist would venture to paint such light and lovely work only to have it labeled "cute" or "sickeningly sweet." Imposing Perrault's high-flown moralizing titles on such work as a means of attempting to lift it to some higher plane would be labeled as overwhelmingly pretentious. Yet various "art factories" around the world continue to offer hand-painted copies of such antique pieces at surprisingly modest prices (perhaps they have to be quite modest to sell them).

Only a Frenchman would come up
with such a silly scene.


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