Naturalism is regarded as a predominantly literary phenomenon, centred on the novels of Émile Zola, which are visually vivid in their descriptive passages. In painting, it has almost slipped altogether from art history, and is normally viewed as being a limited and local phase. In these articles, which I have been publishing here over the last couple of months, I hope that I am starting to convince you otherwise.
This article looks at the work of another almost forgotten Naturalist painter, Alfred Philippe Roll (1846–1919), whose work was sometimes highly political, and who was probably one of the few artists to have influenced Zola, and inspired him to write one of his greatest novels, Germinal.
Roll’s teachers at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris were among the Masters of the day: Jean-Léon Gérôme the realist, Charles-François Daubigny the great landscape artist, and Léon Bonnat who was a favourite of Zola, and remained a friend of Roll’s. After some fine landscapes and narrative works in the style of Rubens, and successes at the Salon, Roll decided that he would focus his attention on everyday life.
Stop There! (1875), which is described as being a photogravure print on canvas, shows his early rather romantic style.
One of Roll’s initial interests in his painting of everyday life was a miners’ strike, most probably that at Denain in the Nord-Pas de Calais coalfield in 1880. He seems to have visited the strike, and painted a large canvas showing the scene at the pithead.
This reproduction, printed in Le Petit Journal on 1 October 1892, of Roll’s Miners’ Strike (1880) is the best current image, as the original has apparently been badly damaged. After its exhibition, probably at the Salon that year, Roll agreed to sell the work to the state at cost price, on the understanding that it would be hung in Paris.
Roll was promised that it would hang in the Ministry of Commerce, but it was actually sent to the local museum in Valenciennes.
Roll shows the desperate and increasingly worrying gathering of striking miners and their families. A woman is restraining one man from throwing a rock at the pithead buildings. Most of those present are barefoot. Mounted soldiers or police are present, apparently putting handcuffs on one of the strikers.
The date of this reproduction in Le Petit Journal has led to the misunderstanding that this painting was made in 1892, and shows the Carmaux miners’ strike of that year; in fact, the original painting was completed by Roll in 1880.
By early 1884, Émile Zola had decided to write a novel in his Rougon-Macquart series about a miners’ strike, and in February 1884 Zola visited a strike near Valenciennes (where Roll’s painting was on display) for his research. He started writing Germinal on 2 April 1884, and the book was published in serial form from November of that year. Its story centres on a miners’ strike in the Nord-Pas de Calais coalfield very similar to that painted by Roll, and it remains Zola’s most successful work.
Roll next embarked on a series of large-scale figurative works, the first of which shows celebrations on the 14th of July – the Fête Nationale or Bastille Day – in 1880. The resulting work is 6.5 metres high, and nearly ten metres across, and was shown in the Salon of 1882. Above is a study for that which shows the atmosphere but not the detail of the finished work.
If that did not establish Roll as a Republican artist, then its successors Work (1885), Centenary Festival of the States (1893), and Commemorative Souvenir of the Laying of the First Stone of the Alexander III Bridge (1899) must have done so. Sadly I have been unable to locate usable images of any of those.
Roll’s undated sketch of A Large Town of Smoke probably dates from this period, and continues his social concerns. At the time, most French towns and cities didn’t separate industrial zones, and it was common for industrial pollution to be set in the midst of crowded poorer residential accommodation.
A Woman and a Bull from 1885 appears mythological, perhaps a fresh take on the famous story of the rape of Europa. However, no clues to its narrative are given, and it may well just be a painting of a nude woman with a playful bull.
Roll’s evocative painting of The Funeral Of Victor Hugo (1885) shows the procession from the Arc de Triomphe, accompanied by more than two million people. Following Émile Zola’s death in 1902, he was interred in the same crypt within the Pantheon.
Some time before 1888, Roll painted this small portrait of the Danish ‘Skagen’ Impressionist painter Peder Severin Krøyer, who in turn painted a group portrait of a committee for an exhibition of French art in Denmark. As Krøyer was a member of that committee, he copied Roll’s portrait for his own image in his group portrait.
Roll doesn’t seem to have been particularly attracted to paint the rural poor, in the way that Jules Bastien-Lepage did. However, Manda Lamétrie, Fermière (1887) is a working portrait of a woman farmer, who has just milked the cow behind her. She is quite well-dressed and clean, with smart working shoes, and the modern metal milk pail is clean.
Given his earlier social paintings, Roll’s portrait of Adolphe Alphand from 1888 may appear out of place. Alphand was a French engineer who worked with Baron Haussmann in the rebuilding of Paris between 1852-1870, and this work was shown at the Exposition Universelle in 1889. Alphand was responsible for the gardens of the Champs-Élysées, the Bois de Vincennes, and the Bois de Boulogne.
Poetry, from about 1890, appears to be a ceiling painting in full-blown Romantic style.
Roll also painted some more unusual occupations, including this portrait of Louise Cattel, Wet-nurse (1894).
Roll’s undated painting After the Ball may have been made as Naturalism faded during the 1890s.
In 1905, Roll became president of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (SNBA).
By the outbreak of the First World War, Roll was in his late sixties. He seems to have spent some of it in the city of Reims, where in 1915 he painted Reims Under Bombardment, 1915, Vision of a Cavern. The city of Reims had first come under shelling on 4 September 1914, and the German army continued to bombard it at irregular intervals through the remainder of 1914, 1915, and into 1916, reducing its ancient cathedral to ruins.
Roll shows locals taking shelter in a capacious cellar under the city, as a veiled and ethereal woman bearing a lantern walks through. Although she may resemble a vision of the Virgin Mary, she appears naked beneath her almost transparent clothing. Her light illuminates an infant sleeping on its mother, in the centre foreground.
Alfred Roll died in Paris in 1919, probably the only Naturalist painter to have inspired one of the great Naturalist literary works by one of his paintings, and one of the few artists prior to the twentieth century to have painted himself into political debate.
Richard Thomson (2012) Art of the Actual, Naturalism and Style in Early Third Republic France, 1880-1900, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 17988 0.