Into the Light: Jean-Louis Forain, courts and studios

Jean-Louis Forain (1852–1931), The Picture Dealer (c 1920), oil on board, 72.1 x 59.1 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. The Athenaeum.

The first of these two articles traced the life and works of Jean-Louis Forain up to 1900. Largely influenced by Degas, with his interests in dancers, horse racing, and women washing themselves, for instance, his paintings had been distinctive, some controversial, but had hardly broken new ground.

Jean-Louis Forain (1852–1931), Dancer and Admirer Behind the Scenes (1903), oil on canvas, 60.5 x 73.5 cm, National Museum of Fine Arts, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Courtesy of National Museum of Fine Arts, via Wikimedia Commons.

Forain remained fascinated by the internally contradictory world of the ballet. His Dancer and Admirer Behind the Scenes (1903) continues to explore the controversial issue of young girls, often from quite poor backgrounds, and their relationships with rich, much older men.

Jean-Louis Forain (1852–1931), Trial Scene (1904), oil on canvas, 61 x 81.2 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

As a caricaturist and political satirist, Forain had long admired, and been inspired by, the work of Honoré Daumier in the middle of the 1800s. He now started to focus more attention on some of the broader and personal issues of the day, including legal processes. One of the first of his social satires, Trial Scene (1904) shows a court completely disinterested in the matter before it, with a judge incapable of remaining awake.

Counsel and Accused 1908 by Jean-Louis Forain 1852-1931
Jean-Louis Forain (1852–1931), Counsel and Accused (1908), oil on canvas, 65.1 x 81.3 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2016, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

He makes further social comment in his Counsel and Accused (1908), where a lawyer inhabiting a different world is shuffling through disordered papers, while his client and her children sit waiting in the office.

Jean-Louis Forain (1852–1931), Artist Painting a Young Woman in White (1907), oil on canvas, 65 x 81.3 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

He also turned his wicked wit against himself and colleagues, with his Artist Painting a Young Woman in White (1907). A young woman poses partly undressed, in a dismal and dingy studio. The painter transports her into an ethereal scene on his canvas.

Jean-Louis Forain (1852–1931), Artist in the Studio (1910), media and dimensions not known, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Artist in the Studio (1910) shows an ugly and obese sculptor posing his nude model on a small stage.

Jean-Louis Forain (1852–1931), The Beach (c 1910-1914), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

The Beach (c 1910-1914) is one of the relatively few outdoor scenes among his surviving works from the twentieth century, and is quite unlike those of other Impressionists, or those of other Post-Impressionists of the day. He had earlier made a few paintings on the Mediterranean coast, but his style here has changed considerably. His gestural approach to water breaking over rocks is very ‘modern’.

During the First World War, Forain’s artistic skills were used to improve military camouflage; he volunteered to work in the section largely composed of artists, directed by de Scévola.

Jean-Louis Forain (1852–1931), Backstage ― Symphony in Blue (c 1900-1923), oil on panel, 45.3 x 54.7 cm, Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

He continued to paint the ballet too. His Backstage ― Symphony in Blue (c 1900-1923) may have the influence of Whistler in its title, but it too has become far more gestural in style. The two young dancers are almost spectres of light, in discussion with a figure barely differentiated from the shadows.

Jean-Louis Forain (1852–1931), The Picture Dealer (c 1920), oil on board, 72.1 x 59.1 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. The Athenaeum.

The Picture Dealer (c 1920) will have made him no friends among the dealers of the day. A very obese top-hatted dealer is making off with a couple of canvases, presumably bought for a pittance from the dishevelled and underfed painter and his cowering wife.

Jean-Louis Forain (1852–1931), The Dancers (c 1925), oil on canvas, 64 x 84 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Still he returned to the ballet, in his The Dancers (c 1925), with its sinister old men chatting up even very small girls.

In 1931, in recognition of his long and successful career and works, he was made a member of the Royal Academy of Arts.

In today’s sanitised view of Impressionism, the movement appears gloriously sensual, but obsessed with the shallow and ephemeral. Forain had no interest in flowery meadows or the new picturesque. His Impressions show us the seamy side of society: its hedonistic nighttime pursuits of socialising, the sex industry, and the corruption of its organs of justice.

How marvellous it would be to see an exhibition of socially realist Impressions, rather than yet more beautifully bland landscapes. Or even a book in print about him, perhaps?