The Painter of the Moment, Eugène Lepoittevin

Eugène Lepoittevin (1806-1870), Bathing at Étretat (1866), oil on canvas, 66.7 x 150.2 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Troyes, France. Image by Didier Rykner, via Wikimedia Commons.

In yesterday’s article about François-Auguste Biard, I showed a painting by today’s artist, Eugène Lepoittevin (1806-1870). What better excuse than to look at some more of his works, and uncover another mysterious pair of paintings by the two artists.

Eugène Lepoittevin was born in Paris in 1806, to the head cabinetmaker in the Palace of Versailles. His original surname was Potdevin, but his father changed the family name and Eugène Lepoittevin is variously known as Le Poittevin, Poidevin, and other spelling variants. In 1826, when he was just twenty, he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied under Louis Hersent and Auguste Xavier Leprince. When the latter died on Boxing Day that year, it was Lepoittevin who was invited to complete the painting, which is remarkably precocious.

His first works were exhibited in the Salon in 1831, when he had no less that ten paintings accepted, and he quickly earned himself a reputation, and a series of commissions from the State to paint historical works for the museum at Versailles. He was also a caricaturist and print-maker, and made a rather different name for himself during the 1830s for a series of erotic/pornographic prints which were banned because of their explicit content.

Eugène Lepoittevin (1806-1870), Fishermen and Boats on the Normandy Coast with Children in the Foreground (1837), media and dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Lepoittevin visited the north French coast during the summers, where he painted Fishermen and Boats on the Normandy Coast with Children in the Foreground in 1837. At this time, his attention also turned to maritime paintings, which appear to have been in demand.

Eugène Lepoittevin (1806-1870), Shipwrecked (1839), media and dimensions not known, Musée de Picardie, Amiens, France. Image by Grégory Lejeune, via Wikimedia Commons.

Among these is his Shipwrecked from 1839, which shows the suriving crew of a wrecked ship, in the background, which has struck an iceberg in the Arctic. The sailor standing, wearing a red jacket, is fending off a polar bear, one of four in the water to the right. If you looked at François-Auguste Biard’s painting of Fight with Polar Bears in yesterday’s article, you’ll have seen his treatment of the same theme. For convenience, I show that painting below.

François-Auguste Biard (1799–1882), Fight with Polar Bears (1839), oil on canvas, 50 × 62 cm, Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, Tromsø, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Was it a coincidence, or the result of a contemporary survivor’s tale of such an episode, that both painters completed those works in 1839, and presumably exhibited them in the Salon that year? Yet neither artist had visited northern waters, nor could they have seen a live polar bear, except in a zoo.

Eugène Lepoittevin (1806-1870), Overwintering of a Team of Dutch Sailors on the Eastern Coast of Novaya Zemlya (1839), oil on canvas, 108 × 156 cm, Musée départemental de l’Oise, Beauvais, France. Wikimedia Commons.

In the same Salon, I suspect, Lepoittevin exhibited this polar scene of the Overwintering of a Team of Dutch Sailors on the Eastern Coast of Novaya Zemlya (1839). Paintings of the coast of Novaya Zemlya, a huge and almost unpopulated archipelago off the north coast of Siberia, weren’t exactly commonplace at the time, but two years later, Biard exhibited his Nova Zembla Coast (1841). These have a common origin, in the published account of the Dutch sailors, but there’s more than a little similarity in the compositions.

François-Auguste Biard (1799–1882), Nova Zembla Coast (1841), oil on canvas, 120 × 165 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.
Naval Battle of Imbre in 1346, 1842 (oil on canvas)
Eugène Lepoittevin (1806-1870), Battle of the Embro, 1346 (1842), oil on canvas, 121 x 135 cm, Château de Versailles, Versailles, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Lepoittevin continued to be successful with maritime paintings, including this showing the Battle of the Embro, 1346 (1842). This battle took place off the island of Embro (Imbre) at the entrance to the Dardanelles (or Hellespont, in the north-eastern Mediterranean) almost five hundred years earlier. The Hospitallers of Rhodes commanded by Biandra, the Prior of Lombardy, defeated the Ottoman fleet there.

Eugène Lepoittevin (1806-1870), Approaching a Surprise (1852), media and dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1852, he painted one of the pioneering ‘problem pictures’ which were to become so popular later in the nineteenth century. His Approaching a Surprise is also unusual for its wry touch of humour. A priest, his head buried in a book, is walking along a track. Just around the corner is a pile of clothing which clearly belongs to a woman, who presumably has just stripped off to bathe. Will the priest look up from his book at the wrong moment and see the surprise?

By 1851, Lepoittevin had made enough money from his paintings to have a chalet built for himself in the village of Étretat, on the Normandy coast. A hundred meters away was the house where the successful author Guy de Maupassant spent his childhood. The artist had a cabin built in his garden, where the author liked to sleep. Lepoittevin also had a studio built by the sea, which is claimed to be where Gustave Courbet painted his Wave series.

Eugène Lepoittevin (1806-1870), Bathing, Étretat Beach (1864), media and dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Guy de Maupassant is one of the figures in Lepoittevin’s Bathing, Étretat Beach from 1864, apparently the young man in the blue cap and black bathing suit in the group at the left. This was exhibited at the Salon in 1865, where it was bought by Napoleon III. It then seems to have been lost for some time, before it was rediscovered in the last few years. It sold for €226,800 in December 2020.

Eugène Lepoittevin (1806-1870), Susannah and the Elders (c 1865), media and dimensions not known, The Hermitage, Saint Petersberg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Lepoittevin tried modernising some very old narratives, including Susannah and the Elders, from about 1865. Set somewhere deep in rural France, Susannah is about to bathe in a rather dirty pond, and lives in the ramshackle cottage behind. The elders are barely hidden from her sight. This may have been intended as an elaborate caricature of the original story from the Old Testament.

Eugène Lepoittevin (1806-1870), A Picnic (1866), oil on canvas, 43 x 62.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

I have seen his Picnic from 1866 referred to as being “Impressionist” despite the fact that it’s a detailed realist account of a thoroughly uncontroversial family meal outdoors. Note the clothes, parasol and hat in the foreground, which are strikingly similar to those in his earlier Approaching a Surprise above.

Eugène Lepoittevin (1806-1870), Bathing at Étretat (1866), oil on canvas, 66.7 x 150.2 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Troyes, France. Image by Didier Rykner, via Wikimedia Commons.

He continued to paint coastal scenes in his studio by the beach, including this of Bathing at Étretat from 1866. This is one of the most detailed views of the cliffs there in realist style – a subject I’ll return to next weekend when I focus on paintings of this location and their importance in the history of ninteenth century painting.

Eugène Lepoittevin (1806-1870), Fishermen at Étretat (date not known), oil on oak panel, dimensions not known, Musée de Fécamp, Fécamp, France. Wikimedia Commons.

This undated view of Fishermen at Étretat was painted on the other side of the famous chalk arch, where local fishermen gathered on the beach to prepare their nets and tackle.

Lepoittevin died in Paris in 1870, just as Impressionism was finding its style, and just over a decade before the cliffs at Étretat were to feature in Claude Monet’s early series paintings. Last year, interest in Lepoittevin’s work was rekindled by an exhibition, so there’s hope that he will now be unforgotten. He was a lifelong opportunist, quick to recognise a genre, theme or motif which was enjoying a moment of fame. It’s easy to dismiss his art as shallow and commercial, but for me he seems able to capture the right moment every time.