Street Urchins: Paintings of Fernand Pelez

Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), The Little Lemon Vendor (c 1895-97), media and dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Chambéry, France. Wikimedia Commons.

My next vanished Master is Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), in his time very popular with the public and critics, and highly successful. In 1981, the great Robert Rosenblum wrote about late nineteenth century painting: “When future generations of art historians reconstruct these years, may they not forget Fernand Pelez!”

Like the slightly younger Eugène Buland, Pelez trained under Alexandre Cabanel at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and was initially under his influence.

Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), The Death of the Emperor Commodus (1879), oil on canvas on cardboard, 58 x 37.5 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. Petit Palais, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Pelez’s first works were also history paintings, such as The Death of the Emperor Commodus (1879). Commodus, who reigned over the Roman Empire from 177-192 BCE, was a larger than life character, aspired (foolishly) to be a gladiator, and a megalomaniac. He was assassinated by being strangled in his bath, after an earlier attempt to poison him had failed. He was so hated that after his death the Senate declared him a public enemy.

Pelez shows the professional wrestler who was paid to murder the emperor bent over the corpse just after the act. Behind them is the bath in which Commodus had been, and the killer is talking to a woman (probably a courtesan) who looks very surprised despite veiling most of her face.

In the early 1880s, Pelez changed direction completely, just as Buland was doing, and he started to paint some of the most moving portraits of the poor, comparable to those of Jules Bastien-Lepage.

Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), Sleeping Laundress (c 1880), media and dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

This early portrait of a Sleeping Laundress (c 1880) is one of a group of works which showed poor women reclining. Another showed a young woman dead from asphyxiation. For all her obvious poverty, there is a faint smile on her face, as she enjoys a brief rest from her long hours of washing.

Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), Homeless (1883), oil on canvas, 77.5 x 136 cm, location not known. Image by Bastenbas, via Wikimedia Commons.

Most of Pelez’s paintings of the poor are much more unsettling, often frankly depressing. His Homeless from 1883 shows a worn and weary mother and her five children living on the street. She stares from sunken eyes straight at the viewer, as her children huddle in filthy blankets and sacking around her. Only the mother and her oldest daughter (who is presumably already at work) wear any shoes.

Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), A Martyr – The Violet Vendor (1885), media and dimensions not known, Petit Palais, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

A Martyr – The Violet Vendor (1885) shows another child of the street, although here Pelez leaves great doubt as to whether we are looking at the boy asleep, or dead. One of the small bunches of violets has fallen from his tray. His eyes are closed, and his mouth agape.

I am sure that Pelez was very familiar with the paintings of Jules Bastien-Lepage, who had only died the previous year. I don’t know whether Pelez had seen The Blind Beggar (below). Although undated, it must have been painted some time between 1881-84, making it feasible that Pelez was here responding to Bastien-Lepage’s earlier work.

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), The Blind Beggar (date not known), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts Tournai, Tournai, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

At the Salon in 1888, Pelez exhibited his most ambitious work yet: a vast five-section canvas over six metres (twenty feet) in length. This currently exists in two versions: one roughly half that size and less finished in parts, and the work exhibited, which is in the Petit Palais in Paris.

Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), Grimaces et misères: les Saltimbanques (Grimaces and Miseries: the Acrobats) (smaller version) (1888), oil on canvas, 114.6 x 292.7 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Above is the smaller version, and below the full-sized one.

Grimaces et misères: les Saltimbanques (Grimaces and Miseries: the Acrobats) follows the pattern of a traditional ‘ages of man’ image, in which the figures increase in stature from the start at the left edge, to the centre, then diminish again with advancing years, to the right. Les Saltimbanques had been a successful show in the theatre fifty years earlier, and had lived on in entertainments staged in fairs around France. Contemporary performers attested to the faithfulness and accuracy of Pelez’s painting.

Rosenblum summarises the painting as presenting “a glum view of the contrast between the goals of rousing entertainment in a popular Parisian circus troupe and the actual melancholy and isolation of the performers.”

Les Saltimbanques was featured and illustrated in the French weekly magazine l’Illustration, which also identified many of Pelez’s models, who were performers in fairs and circuses.

Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), Grimaces et misères: les Saltimbanques (Grimaces and Miseries: the Acrobats) (larger version) (1888), oil on canvas, 222 x 625 cm, Musée du Petit Palais, Paris. Image by Morburre, via Wikimedia Commons.

Pelez never repeated the success of Les Saltimbanques, and in subsequent Salons faded from public view. In 1896, he tried another monumental work, which was the last that he exhibited publically. He returned to his studio and lived the remainder of his life as a virtual recluse.

Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), The Little Lemon Vendor (c 1895-97), media and dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Chambéry, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Pelez painted six different versions of The Little Lemon Vendor (c 1895-97), of which this is thought to have been the last. It was never shown in a Salon, despite its compelling imagery.

Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), La Vachalcade (The Cow-valcade) (1896), media and dimensions not known, Musée du Petit Palais, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

La Vachalcade (The Cow-valcade) (1896) is a reversal of a portrait of an affluent family by way of parody. Thirteen young revelers are taking part in a carnival procession, perhaps one of the Vachalcades which took place in Montmartre at the time. Some wear masks, others have the close-shorn hair characteristic of the poor, a measure against endemic parasites.

At the centre is a boy very similar to The Little Lemon Vendor, wearing an adult’s jacket and a huge hat. Behind him is a Pierrot character, and in the background a banner bearing the word Misère – misery. Dangling on that is a dead rat, a reference to a well-known café on the Place Pigalle.

The ‘vache’ (cow) in the title refers to the French phrase manger de la vache enragée, meaning to live in poverty.

In 1901, Pelez wrote a plea to the city of Paris to preserve his work as a whole, as each painting was a page in a book describing the story of the poor of the city. He died in his studio in 1913.

The smaller version of Les Saltimbanques recently sold at auction for almost half a million dollars, and Pelez had his first solo retrospective exhibition in 2009-10.


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.