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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Paul Émile Chabas

September Morn, 1912, Paul Chabas
The French have a phrase, "succès de scandale." We Americans simply declare, "There's no such thing as bad publicity." There are probably some American presidential "also-rans" these days who might disagree with that sentiment, but for artists, it very often holds true. "Succes de scandal," loosely translated, is any work of art which finds success due to public controversy surrounding it. Usually there's a moral element involved, though James McNeill Whistler's "success de scandal," Nocturne in Black and Gold, was totally lacking in any erotic content. (This was the painting which English art critic, John Ruskin, accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public's face”). However there was no paint pot involved, with Eduard Manet's 1863 Luncheon on the Grass or John Singer Sargent's 1884 Madame X (she wasn't even nude). Marcel Duchamp had his Nude Descending a Staircase. His 1912 figure was nude, according to the title, but far from titillating. That was not the case with the French artist, Paul Emile Chabas and his 1912 September Morn (above).

The Artist's Model, Paul Emile Chabas
Paul Chabas photo, 1897
Insofar as French nudes were concerned (especially during the Pre-WW I era) Chabas' September Morn was pretty much a run-of-the-mill, sanitized, academic nude by a pretty much run-of-the-mill artist of his time. It was far from explicit (especially as compared to Gustave Courbet's 1866, Origin of the World) or even Chabas' own The Artist's Model, (above) also from around 1912. But all that was in France, and all that was before the French art invasion of New York at the 1913 Armory Show. There's no indi-cation Chabas' September Morn was a part of that Modern Art incursion, but the painting did, in fact, show up in New York about May, of 1913.

Anthony Comstock, U.S.
Postal Inspector.
A man named Anthony Comstock, was the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. He protested that the painting was supposedly immoral. If Comstock was offended by the painting, its artist, Chabas, was just as offended by Comstock and the controversy over the work. For a time he retreated to the South of France. None-theless, there was still much publicity. Repro-ductions of the painting soon hit the market (for which Chabas received not a cent). They sold briskly...for many years afterwards, in fact. September Morn has sometimes been con-sidered kitsch, though as kitsch goes, it's a pretty mild example. Chabas refused to identify the model, referring to her only as "Marthe". Yet the controversy refused to go away. As late as 1935, a rumor circulated that the young woman was living in poverty. Chabas was receiving letters from people in the U.S. who wanted to come to her aid. The painting was still considered indecent by some in the U.S. more than twenty years later.

The Nymphs of dance, Paul Émile Chabas
Ninf Loira, Paul Chabas. Today,
his nudes probably wouldn't
raise many eyebrows but the
apparent ages of his models
In the years that followed, Chabas illus-trated books by such authors as Paul Bourget and Alfred de Musset as well as works for the French publisher Alphonse Lemerre. He became a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1921 and received the Légion d’honneur in 1928. From 1925 to 1935 he was president of the Société des Artistes Français. He died a widower in Paris in May of 1937 after a long illness. In the room where he died there was only one painting—a copy of September Morn which he had painted from memory.

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