Most painters paint women, but I can think of only one artist whose whole career consisted of painting almost exclusively women: Jules LeFebvre (1834–1912). He was also one of the great teachers of the late nineteenth century, perhaps inevitably counting at least two significant women artists among his many pupils.
LeFebvre, as he styled his surname, was born on the outskirts of Paris, in Tournan-en-Brie, in 1834, the son of a baker who moved two years later to Amiens. His talent for drawing was soon identified, and he seems to have progressed precociously. At the age of only sixteen, he entered the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he was taught by the brilliant narrative painter Léon Cogniet (1794–1880).
Cogniet had himself won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1817, and encouraged his outstanding pupil to try too. Among Cogniet’s other students were Rosa Bonheur, Jean-Paul Laurens and Meissonier.
LeFebvre won the Prix de Rome with The Death of Priam in 1861. Set among the ruins of Troy as it fell to the Greeks, it shows a thoroughly conventional, and very Spartan, Neoptolemus just about to swing his sword at the prostrate figure of King Priam, who is lying on the floor by the altar to Zeus. Priam looks up at his killer, knowing that he has only seconds to live.
Behind Neoptolemus is another body, presumably that of Priam’s son Polites. To the right, in the darkness behind, Queen Hecuba tries to comfort other Trojans. At the left, a young Trojan is trying to sneak away, back into the burning city, with smoke twisting its way into the dark sky.
LeFebvre had first exhibited at the Salon in 1855, when he was only twenty-one. In 1866, he exhibited this Nymph and Bacchus, which is dark and antique in its style. The nymph has just killed a blackbird with her arrow, and is teasing a very young Bacchus with it. The herm at the right looks on and laughs.
Two years later, in 1868, he exhibited his first brazen nude at the Salon amid great consternation.
It was LeFebvre’s Truth from 1870 which established his reputation for painting nude women, a work he completed at the start of the Franco-Prussian War. Truth is conventionally naked and bearing her mirror, but her well seems to have been lost in the gloom behind her. The crucial clue is given in the rope which she holds in her left hand.
This painting is thought to have been a major influence on Frédéric Bartholdi, who that year made the first small model of his sculpture which was to be presented to the US as the Statue of Liberty – Truth fully clothed.
LeFebvre painted Pandora more than once. This initial version from 1872 shows her walking with the fateful box held in both hands, its lid firmly shut. Ominous smoke rises from a series of fumaroles in the ground around her. She is nude, wears an unusual coronet, and there is a six-pointed star above her head.
That same year, he exhibited this painting of a sultry young woman titled The Grasshopper, or Cicada (1872). The title also applies to a woman street singer, which is almost certainly his allusion here, although it provides no explanation for her state of undress.
LeFebvre even found a religious motif which could feature a nude woman: Mary Magdalene In The Cave, which he painted in 1876. This refers to a French legend which held that Mary Magdalene, her brother Lazarus and some companions fled across the Mediterranean to land at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer near Arles. From there, Mary went to live in isolation in a cave on a hill near Marseille, now known as La Saint-Baume, and the setting for this painting.
In his Graziella from 1878, LeFebvre refers to the popular novel of the same name by Alphonse de Lamartine, which had first been serialised in 1849, and was published entire in 1852. The heroine of the title is a fisherman’s granddaughter who lives in the Bay of Naples, which explains why Mount Vesuvius is quietly smoking in the distance, just by Graziella’s knees. This was commissioned by the American collector Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, an important supporter of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The following year, 1879, saw LeFebvre engaged in a large mythical work. For this, he painted this small panel of Diana, in which she is seen alone with her attributes of hunting bow and arrows, and the crescent moon on her head. LeFebvre appears to have been experimenting with a pre-Christian glow effect to indicate her divine nature.
His large work, Diana Surprised (1879), tells the Ovidean myth of Actaeon, who stumbled into Diana and her party bathing deep in the woods when he was out hunting. For the offence of seeing the goddess naked, he was turned into a deer, which was promptly torn apart by his own hunting dogs.
LeFebvre ingeniously shows only the naked goddess and her attendants, who are taken aback by something beyond the left edge of the canvas. At the far right is a dead deer on the ground, which gives a fairly explicit clue to its narrative.
In the same year, he painted another sultry young woman, her hair decked with Morning Glory flowers, in Morning Glory (1879).