By 1880, Jules LeFebvre (1834–1912) was one of the leading ‘academic’ painters in France, alongside Bouguereau, and with his rival was teaching at the Académie Julian, which that year became the first Paris academy to admit women. It was also very welcoming to non-Francophone artists, particularly those from the USA.
With Naturalism starting to become all the rage at the Salon, and the renegade Impressionists exhibiting their work outside, LeFebvre showed no signs of change, and continued to paint beautiful young women almost exclusively, although he did paint a few portraits of men too.
LeFebvre tried his hand at a few ‘Orientalist’ works, of which Servant from 1880 is perhaps his most successful. Although the woman and her clothing is painted to his usual high standard, I think he is here less successful with the fruit and porcelain on the tray. He also painted at least one Japoniste woman.
Although LeFebvre’s Ondine of 1882 refers to the water nymph featured in Aloysius Bertrand’s prose poems Gaspard de la Nuit of 1842, she here proves no more than another excuse for an academic nude.
LeFebvre’s second painting of Pandora made in 1882, a decade after his first, places her in profile next to the sea. She has a star just above her forehead, but that has become five-pointed rather than six, perhaps to dodge any Jewish connotations. His earlier gentle narrative has all but vanished too.
The tragic figure of Ophelia (1890), from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, had become a popular motif for artists during this period. Notable in LeFebvre’s version is his attention to the detail of her hair, as well as the Morning Glory flowers adorning it.
In 1891, LeFebvre found another theme which he was to paint on at least two occasions: Lady Godiva, the legendary noblewoman of Coventry in England who rode through its streets naked on horseback in protest at her husband’s swingeing taxes. She is shown here passing over deserted narrow cobbled streets, covering her breasts and appearing in some distress. Her horse is being led by a maid, and flying alongside are three white doves. She appears almost saintly in her mission, as if undergoing some sort of psychological martyrdom.
Renowned or vilified for his nudes, LeFebvre’s paintings included many in which his subjects were clothed, and his Judith from 1892 is one of the most interesting. This is the Judith who, according to the Old Testament story, decapitated Holofernes – understandably a popular motif for women painters.
LeFebvre shows a proud and powerful figure holding a huge sword. From her helmet-like headdress to her heavy bronze belt she is every bit a warrior. In his portraits, LeFebvre favoured two poses: looking straight at the viewer, or head in profile looking to the right; here he uses the latter to reinforce Judith’s strength. His brushwork has also loosened significantly, at the edge of her black hair and in her clothing in particular.
LeFebvre exhibited this painting of Lady Godiva at Prayer at the Salon in 1905, and I presume that this is a monochrome reproduction of a full colour original. His second painting of this heroine is now clearly approaching a religious transition, standing in front of a psalter, her eyes looking up to heaven. However, the artist doesn’t give any visual clues as to what she is about to do.
The final painting I have to show by LeFebvre is unfortunately undated, and shows Grisélidis, the heroine of Massenet’s opera which was first performed in Paris in November 1901. I therefore suspect that LeFebvre painted this between 1902-12. A variant of the folk story of Griselda, included in Boccaccio’s Decameron, Grisélidis is a shepherdess who is repeatedly tempted by the devil to be unfaithful to her husband, but remains loyal to him.
Two features are of relevance here: the sketchiness of the background, and the painterliness of Grisélidis’s hair, shown in the detail below.
By the time of LeFebvre’s death in Paris in 1912, art had changed. The critics quickly turned against him, describing him as a very bad painter, and his works were almost forgotten.
Even if you ignore his career-long fascination for painting beautiful women, he was an important teacher, both at the École des Beaux-Arts and in the Académie Julian. Among his pupils were:
- Georges Rochegrosse (1859–1938), from 1871, who retained academic style.
- Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921), from about 1876, the Belgian Symbolist painter.
- Colin Campbell Cooper (1856–1937), from 1886-90, the American painter of skyscrapers.
- Frederick Childe Hassam (1859-1935), from 1886, a major American Impressionist.
- Elizabeth Nourse (1859–1938), from 1887, a major American realist painter.
- Henrietta Rae (1859–1928), from 1890, who retained academic style and returned to Britain to shock the Royal Academy with her nudes.
- Charles Conder (1868-1909), from about 1891, one of the Australian Impressionists.
That’s a fairly eclectic range of styles.