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Louis-Léopold Boilly and the art of the French Revolution
28 February, 2019
The National Gallery will stage the first-ever exhibition in the UK devoted to Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761–1845), one of the most important artists of Revolutionary France.
At the core of Boilly: Scenes of Parisian Life will be 18 paintings from a British private collection which have never been displayed or published. Assembled by British property developer and collector Harry Hyams over the course of the last 60 years, these works from The Ramsbury Manor Foundation will introduce National Gallery visitors to an artist who was at the very heart of the Parisian art world throughout the Revolution of 1789, the Terror, the rise and fall of Napoleon, and the restoration of the French monarchy.
Best known for his highly detailed, exquisitely painted genre scenes, Boilly’s artistic production was diverse and prolific: over the course of his long career he worked in oils, watercolours, chalk, ink, engraving, and lithography, frequently using one medium to imitate another and producing thousands of works of art.
What best unifies this vast and varied oeuvre is Boilly’s interest in looking. Whether depicting an audience and performance in a genre scene, or letting us spy on an aristocratic interior; tricking the viewer’s eye with an illusionistic trompe-l’oeil painting, or depicting a wide-eyed sitter in a portrait – Boilly was fascinated by the art of looking, and the art of being looked at.
Born on the outskirts of Lille in 1761, Boilly settled in Paris in 1785 and spent the following six decades there. His earliest paintings were small, relatively simple compositions, making use of only a handful of elegantly dressed figures in a fashionable, contemporary interior, often including ravishing still-life elements to show off his skill in rendering reflective surfaces.
Many of these paintings had romantic or mildly risqué subject matter: Comparing Little Feet (1891, The Ramsbury Manor Foundation) uses a seemingly innocent competition between two young women as a means of exposing their legs and décolletages, whereas works such as Two Young Women Kissing (about 1790–4, The Ramsbury Manor Foundation) are more explicitly erotic.
In 1789 everything changed with the French Revolution. The old power structures that had governed almost every facet of artistic life were swept away, and without them the young painter was faced with exciting new opportunities.
Suddenly, Boilly’s intimate, interior views for elite, private patrons got him into hot water: denounced by a fellow artist, he was hauled before the infamous Committee of Public Safety and accused of painting works that were damaging to republican morals.
Luckily, Boilly escaped imprisonment, turning instead to paintings intended for public exhibition. Previously considered a rather lowly type of art, genre paintings now had a part to play in telling the nation’s rapidly unfolding history, and for Boilly this would reach its most ambitious and sophisticated expression with the painting that rocketed him to fame: The Meeting of Artists in Isabey’s Studio (1798, Musée du Louvre).
In depicting 31 of the greatest luminaries of his generation – among them 18 painters, 3 sculptors, 3 architects, and 2 engravers – Boilly was making a grand statement about the modern French School.
At the turn of the 19th century, Boilly also began producing ambitious urban vistas. In these scenes, Boilly became the first French artist to paint views of everyday life on Paris’s streets and boulevards. Boilly’s street scenes can be characterised by their attention to detail, their high degree of finish, and their rich colours.
They almost always include children, yet his paintings largely debunk the charges of being simplistic or saccharine that are so often levelled against his 18th-century ‘chocolate-box’ predecessors.
In the painting The Poor Cat (1832, The Ramsbury Manor Foundation) a child stealthily picks a pocket while a family of beggars slumps lethargically on the pavement.
The Barrel Game (about 1828, The Ramsbury Manor Foundation) features a game outside a wine shop which has its share of shady goings-on in the background, with amorous embraces and a man urinating against a wall. In A Carnival Scene (1832, The Ramsbury Manor Foundation) – Boilly’s late masterpiece and most ambitious street scene – costumed characters from every epoch Boilly lived through parade through the streets of Paris.
As well as his genre paintings, portraiture was a constant throughout Boilly’s career – it is estimated he produced 5,000 small portraits in his lifetime. In the aftermath of the Revolution, Boilly recognised that the change in social structures had made space for a new kind of patron and portrait – small, affordable likenesses which he boasted he could produce in just two hours.
These will be represented in the exhibition through works such as Portrait of the Comtesse François de Sainte-Aldegonde (about 1800–5, The Ramsbury Manor Foundation) and Portrait of a Lawyer (first quarter of the 19th century, The Ramsbury Manor Foundation).
Boilly was not only working in a politically revolutionary period, but he was also actively involved in turning representation – and especially the relationship between different media – on its head. It was he who first used the phrase trompe l’oeil to describe illusionistic paintings that “deceived the eye” by creating the illusion that depicted objects exist in three dimensions.
In the National Gallery’s Girl at a Window (after 1799) although it is painted in oil on canvas, the use of monochromatic tones for the main subject, the blue border, and the ‘printed’ signature at bottom left give the illusion that we are actually looking at a print in a mount.
Image: Louis-Léopold Boilly
Grateful Hearts, about 1790
Oil on canvas
46 × 56.5 cm
The Ramsbury Manor Foundation
Photo © courtesy the Trustees