In my first article about François-Auguste Biard (1799–1882), I gave an introduction to his biography, and looked at the paintings which he made of the Arctic around the time of his own visit to Spitsbergen in 1839. This article looks briefly at his other paintings, particularly those of more tropical countries.
Before he went to Spitsbergen, Biard had been a successful portraitist and genre painter. Although the next four paintings are undated, I suspect that they were probably made during that period.
At The Post Office, or the familiar French phrase Poste Restante used so much by travellers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, could have been anywhere in France or its colonies. Before widespread access to the phone and Internet, the only way of keeping in touch with those at home, when you were travelling, was by letters they sent to await you at a Post Office – hence, they were sent Poste Restante.
A loose collection of travellers are seen, some opening and reading post from home, empty envelopes discarded on the ground. The young woman at the left has clearly received a letter from her love. Others are engaged in discussion, and a small dog begs on its hind legs. This is strongly reminiscent of nineteenth century artists such as Hogarth and Frith.
This was also a period of fascination in the Middle East and North Africa, as Orientalism, and particularly for learning secrets from In the Harem – a subject of several of Biard’s paintings, which are likely to have had a good market.
Public scrutiny and debate about the role of the church and its clergy was another topical matter, shown in Biard’s The Sermon in similarly Hogarthian form.
While those three paintings are on canvas and appear to be finished ready for the market, Biard’s more sketchy view In a Mountain Hut may have been made in front on the motif, onto paper. The caricature and humour of those other works has gone, and this has a stronger vein of social realism, showing the abject poverty and spartan conditions of many who lived in the more remote areas of France.
Biard was also involved in the long campaign to end the slave trade, which started to take effect from about 1772. But it was not until 1803 that the first European nation (Denmark) banned the trade. France didn’t agree to abolition of the slave trade until the Treaty of Paris in 1814, and even then permitted it until 1826. (Slavery had initially been abolished in France in 1794, but was reinstated by Napoleon I in 1802.) Slavery itself wasn’t abolished in the US until the end of the Civil War in 1865, and Brazil allowed it to continue until as late as 1888.
His early painting of The Slave Trade (Slaves on the West Coast of Africa), from about 1833, shows the illegal slave trade of the day flourishing, as brutally as it had been when it was legal.
The French colonies, particularly in the West Indies, were allowed to continue to keep slaves until abolition was enforced on all French soil. Biard’s Proclamation of the Abolition of Slavery in the French Colonies, 27 April 1848 (1849) celebrates the occasion. This painting was another royal commission for the palace at Versailles.
During the 1850s, interest in Biard’s paintings started to decline, and his itchy feet returned. Although now into his fifties, he set off on his own personal expedition to Brazil, where he showed particular interest in the great rivers of the Amazon, Negro, and Madeira.
I don’t know whether his Seasickness on an English Corvette (1857) was painted during his initial travel to South America, but it is a magnificent caricature of life, again in the manner of Hogarth at his very best.
Sadly, few paintings from Biard’s expedition to South America are accessible in usable images, apart from his dark and jewelled view of Amazonian Indians Worshipping the Sun God from about 1860.
Biard took the opportunity of painting portraits of the Portuguese court in Rio de Janeiro. He then travelled to tour the US, returning to Paris in 1861. The following year he published a book about his travels in Brazil, illustrated by engravings made from his paintings. He didn’t die by the mauling of a polar bear, or even from a poison dart in the Amazon jungle, but in Samois-sur-Seine, near Paris, a few days short of his 83rd birthday.
Biard must have been a fascinating character, and certainly made some thrilling and swashbuckling paintings. However, as an explorer his experience was a lot more limited than his reputation, and most of his most successful paintings showed scenes from his imagination, rather than his own adventures. They’re still rather good, though.