- Jehan-Georges Vibert
Gulliver and the Lilliputians
- signed J. G. Vibert (lower right)
- oil on canvas
- 22¼ by 43¼ in.
- 56.5 by 109.8 cm
Possibly, Charles Crocker, San Francisco
Possibly, with a Philadelphia art gallery in 1887 (possibly acquired from the above after his death in 1886)
Peter A. Schemm, Philadelphia (possibly acquired from the above and in his collection by 1901 until sold: American Art Association, New York, March 1-2, 1906, lot 201, illustrated)
Sale: M. Thomas & Sons' Galleries, Philadelphia, May 2-6, 1911, lot 201
Estate Sale, Maryland, circa 1960
Private Collection (acquired at the above sale)
Thence by descent to the present owner
Connoisseurs, collectors, and even art historians all yearn for the chance to rediscover and revel in a lost masterpiece. Such an occasion doesn't happen often, but it has happened with the discovery or re-discovery of this version of Jehan-Georges Vibert's Gulliver and the Lilliputians, a subject, which he exhibited to acclaim at the Salon of 1870. When the writer Earl Shinn (under the pseudonym Edward Strahan) published in 1880 his monumental three-volume Art Treasures of America, a compendium of the country's major collections of traditional painting, he included mentions of two versions of Vibert's composition on two different coasts. One belonged to Charles Crocker of San Francisco and the other to William T. Walters of Baltimore.1 However, within a few years both works were sold and thus began a rather tangled and confusing history of ownership and exhibition. According to the Diaries of the American picture agent, George A. Lucas, he had acquired the Salon painting, of which the complete title was "Gulliver, fortement attaché au sol et cerné par l'armée. (Les autorités Lilliputiennes attendent son réveil.")2 for Mr. Walters in August 1871.3 Fortunately before its sale shortly thereafter, it was published in the 1884 catalogue of Mr. Walter's collection with the dimensions of 24 by 48 inches and the indication that it was dated "1870."4 Mr. Crocker died in 1888, and it is not clear what happened next to his painting. But according to reports in the New York Times one version of the subject was with an art dealer in Philadelphia in 18875 and one was sold in 1890 by the New York auctioneer Daniel A. Mathews.6
It would seem logical but not proven that the one shown in Philadelphia then entered the extensive collection of that city's noted brewer-collector Peter A. Schemm. His catalogue published in 1901 gives its dimensions as 22 ¼ by 43 ½ inches and does not indicate the presence of a date.7 Mr. Schemm then offered a group of his paintings, including Gulliver, for sale in New York in 1906,8 and while ostensibly sold, it must have been bought-in because it then reappears in a Philadelphia sale of other works from the collection after Schemm's death in 1911.9 This would seem to be the version that then vanished from view only to reappear in an estate sale in Maryland in the early 1960s and is now presented here. In the meantime, the slightly larger and dated Walters' version was acquired sometime before 1925 by the founder of the Beech-Nut company, Bartlett Arkell, and eventually bequeathed by him in 1946 to the Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery (now the Arkell Museum) in his hometown in upstate New York, where it has remained ever since.10
It was a common practice of Vibert to paint such repliques of his most popular paintings, as he did for example with Le Schism now in the Wadsworth Atheneum.11 It made especially good sense in the case of Gulliver, which was not only Vibert's most complex painting, but also a popular success at the Salon. The critic Ménard, for example, reported that it "attracted a crowd from its very first day on view." And he went on to praise "the ingenious combination of the groups, the piquant expressions of the figures, the costumes and the attitudes of the various characters so full of fantasy and most appropriate to the subject."12
Vibert of course is best known today for his multitude of humorous scenes of prelates and cardinals, that later became his stock in trade, but he also painted many inventive evocations of life in the eighteenth century. He did relatively few subjects inspired by earlier literary sources; in addition to Gulliver, there is only a Don Quixote found amongst his numerous Spanish themes.13 But he certainly had a literary bent and even entitled one of his works Reading Rabelais. Gulliver is thus quite unusual in Vibert's oeuvre, and we can imagine that the then thirty-year-old artist did this vivid painting specifically to garner attention at the Salon of 1870. This was the Salon from which Monet's large, now lost, version of La Grenouillière was rejected. But on view competing for attention were paintings by such established artists as Gustave Courbet, Jean-François Millet, Alfred Stevens, and Gustave Doré. Also of note that year were both Regnault's Salomé and Puvis de Chavannes' Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Of other literary themes there were a Falstaff and a Don Quixote, and in the genre category Vibert's gem-like work had for rivals examples by Munkacsy and Zamacois.
Most of the critics were kind to him. Théophile Gautier called it a "very jolly thing, full of invention and very lively in the painting, with Gulliver sleeping on the beach like a mountain in the middle of the Lilliputians who explore his body. Nothing more droll can be imagined than these petite folks in their costumes, half Mongol half Persian."14 For J. Goujon the painting was "amusing and sure to make the viewer laugh."15 And Mézin opined that it was "a painting by a master, which will please admirers of Swift. It is impossible to interpret it better; it has the grand wit of Grandville and it is painted on the small scale of a Meissonier."16
The painter-critic Olivier Merson vividly described Gulliver as "tied up like a sausage" and praised the multitude of details, only finding the work too large to be examined close up.17 The longest notice was by Camille Lemonnier in his book length Salon review, where he wrote:
Gulliver is a witty canvas in which cleverness abounds and which shows a great deal of savoir faire. Stretched out like Pelion [the mountain in Greek mythology that was home to Chiron], the good giant rests on the ground, legs open and arms spread out, in a pose that presents head on the soles of his boots, the balls of his knees, the pyramid of his stomach, the plane of his jaw and his deep nostrils. He covers an enormous space of the little canvas and sleeps with his fists closed. But here come the Lilliputians, encircling with their finger-sized legions the steep circumference of the colossus. This is a great affair, they push forward their machines of war, raise the cranes, roll out the cables and together, chiefs and soldiers, attack the human block. But the good Gulliver sleeps on...and he is quickly tied up with ropes like an apothecary's vial. These little men climb up on him, penetrate into the pits of his nostrils, walk in the creases of his cheeks, weighing no more than a fly...The giant shows a jolly face... and the little men of Lilliput, generals, marshals, chamberlains, senators, all gather on the sidelines in charming postures and swarm about with comic fervor. Mr. Vibert has wit and Swift would be pleased by him. He deploys a fine brio in this amusing small polished painting and omits no detail. His Gulliver is done with precise drawing, very similar to that of Mr. Gérôme. He excels in monkeylike expressions, in naïve drollness, and in his category of genre he wins a bouquet of lilies of the valley. But he should not repeat this effort again!18
The critic who signed his notice simply Térigny aptly observed for the French audience that Vibert's work "reminds us of our childhood memories when we all read Gulliver as we did Fairy Tales."19
Jonathan Swift's great satirical text was first published in 1726 (fig. 1); and the first illustrated edition appeared the next year as did also the first French translation. The standard English edition with illustrations by T. Morten was first published in London in 1865. Its rendition of the scene of Gulliver tied down to the ground with a multitude of the tiny Lilliputians surrounding him and walking about over his body might well have provided inspiration for Vibert.20 However, in Morten's plate Gulliver's open eyes and moving left hand clearly indicate that this is the moment when the "giant" human awakens. In Vibert's painting he continues to sleep soundly. Morten's Gulliver is also a younger unbearded man and the Lilliputians are dressed in costumes suggestive of English or French styles of the eighteenth century. Vibert could also have known several illustrated nineteenth-century French editions. Those by Grandville (1838)21 and Gavarni (of the 1850s)22 do not depict this same moment and only vaguely, in the use of turbans or feathered headdresses for the Lilliputians, suggest an eastern setting. More important for Vibert may have been the 1855 French edition illustrated by Bouchot.23 In his depiction of the Lilliputians tying down Gulliver, one notes a similar detail of his enormous hat lying in the foreground, and the Lilliputian hordes carrying bows and arrows and wearing turbans are now distinctly eastern.
While these printed illustrations may have planted a seed, Vibert cultivated it to an extremely original degree. There is an amazing richness of detail and color combined with the exquisite touch that Vibert brings to his painting as well his ingenious re-imagining of the unusual subject. The fanciful map (fig. 2) that Swift incorporated into his text informs the reader that Lemuel Gulliver's ship was wrecked in the vastness of the Indian Ocean west of Tasmania and Australia, and it is there that the hero came ashore on the island of Lilliput. But only Vibert seizes on this to provide a truly exotic eastern look to its inhabitants, who wear a variety of fanciful Chinese and Japanese costumes. In fact we know from the artist's atelier sale that he owned a collection of such costumes.24 They also served as his source for one other scene of fantasy that he titled Un Conte de fée.25 In this work two magicians in fantastic Chinese costumes summon up spirits and spiders. Not only the garments, but also the other accoutrements of the Lilliputians are of incredible original variety. Their footwear is notable, and Vibert was seemingly obsessed with shoes, even giving them a conversation in one of his witty texts.26 The headgear, particularly the helmets, are also remarkably inventive, especially the bird-like ones of the black soldier who looks like one of Gérôme's Bachi-Bouzouks.27 Swift was of course satirizing contemporary Englishmen and the elaborate hierarchy of the Hanoverian court,28 but Vibert makes his subject something quite different - almost a subspecies of Orientalism, even including the Indian elephant and howdah in the distance at the right. In fact one wonders if perhaps Vibert did not find some inspiration for his treatment of the subject in another famous work by Gérôme, namely his Audience des ambassadeurs de Siam à Fontainebleau, shown at the Salon of 1865.29 In that work there is a decided miniature-like quality to the elaborately dressed Siamese figures.
Vibert's great achievement is that he has created such an elaborate painting with over fifty distinct miniature figures, but because of his exquisite design and sense of composition it is easy to read and delight in the multiplicity of incident. To achieve this the painter has cleverly conflated the scene of Gulliver tied down while sleeping close to the sea with a slightly later incident when the officials of the Lilliputian royal court make an exact inventory of his possessions, most notably his silver watch. Morten's illustrations of 1865 showed the seated Gulliver holding this item for their inspection as well as a close up of their expert examination.30 In Vibert's painting the watch has already been ingeniously removed and is being attentively studied by the group of wizards in the foreground. Vibert's own satiric text describing his painting that he included in his La Comédie en Peinture is presented as a report of the incident in the Lilliputian newspaper and notes that the watch is quite primitive in the eyes of these ultra-civilized folk.31
Although slightly smaller in its dimensions than the Arkell Museum's version, this canvas is otherwise identical in all respects, down to the very last stroke of Vibert red to indicate a flower at the lower left corner. It has been suggested, Vibert may have employed a photographic-mechanical method32 in order to create the many "replicas of different dimensions" that the Goncourts observed was typical of this artist's commercial acumen.33 In the case of this important painting he produced in addition to the two known oil versions,34 both a watercolor35 and an engraving36 of the subject.
This catalogue note was written by Eric M. Zafran.
1 Edward Strahan's The Art Treasures of America, Philadelphia, 1880-82, vol. I, pp. 92 and 94 and vol. III, pp. 44 and 50.
2 Explication des Ouvrages...au Palais des Champs-Elysées, Paris, May 1, 1870, p. 378, no. 2871.
3 See The Diary of George A. Lucas, ed. Lilian M. C. Randall, Princeton, 1979, vol. II, p. 345.
4 See William R. Johnston, The Nineteenth-Century Paintings in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1982, p. 29. The painting was listed in Collection of W. T. Walters, 65 Mt. Vernon Place, Baltimore , 1884, p. 37, no. 58. The painting was mistakenly listed in the New York Times' obituary of Vibert on July 29, 1902, p. 9 as still being in Walters' collection.
5 "Art Notes," New York Times, April 3, 1887, p. 11.
6 "Special Notices," New York Times, January 5, 1890, p. 5.
7 Catalogue of the private collection of paintings belonging to Peter A. Schemm, Philadelphia, 1901, no. 32. The presence of the painting in the Schemm collection is noted in "An Appreciation of Jehan Georges Vibert," Brush and Pencil, September 1902, p. 328.
8 Sale, American Art Association, Mendelssohn Hall, New York, March 1-2, 1906, no. 60 (sold for $1025 to a Mr. Gross, according to the annotated copy in the Frick Art Reference Library).
9 Sale The Philadelphia Art Galleries, May 2-6, 1911, no. 201, (selling for only $600 according to the annotated copy in the Frick Art Reference Library).
10 The painting was included in the 1939 catalogue of the Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery. See Catalogue of the permanent collection, intro. by Royal Cortissoz, Canajoharie, NY, 1939. See also Edward W. Lipowicz, Catalogue of the Permanent Collection of the Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery, Canajoharie, NY, 1969, no. 16; and Eric Zafran, Cavaliers and Cardinals: Nineteenth-Century French Anecdotal Paintings, exh. cat., Taft Museum, Cincinnati, 1992, pp. 16 and 28. The painting was most recently published in the exhib. cat. Artist as Narrator, Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 2005, p. 83.
11 See Zafran, 1992, no. 102; the Salon version was acquired by the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1998.
12 René Ménard, "Salon de 1870," in Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1870.
13 See Vibert, La Comédie en Peinture, London, Paris, New York, 1902, vol. II, p. 145.
14 Théophile Gautier, "Salon de 1870," Journal official de l'Empire français, July 3, 1870
15 J. Goujon, Salon de 1870, Propos en l'air, Paris, 1870, pp. 118-119.
16 B. de Mézin, Promenades en long et en large au Salon de 1870, Paris, 1870, pp. 38-39.
17 Olivier Merson, "Le Salon de 1870," Le Monde illustré, p. 310.
18 Camille Lemonnier, Salon de Paris, 1870, Paris, 1870, pp. 161-163.
19 Térigny, "Salon de 1870: Le Genre et le portrait," Revue internationale de l'art et de la curiosité, Paris, vol. III, no. 1, Jan. 15, 1870, p. 425.
20 Reproduced in Isaac Asimov, ed., Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift, New York, 1980, pp. 8-9.
21 Voyages de Gulliver, Paris, 1838. See Gottfried Sello, Grandville: Das Gesamte Werk, Munich, 1972, nos. 580-589.
22 Voyages de Gulliver, vignettes de Gavarni, Paris, 185?, p. 16.
23 Voyages de Gulliver, nouvelle édition...illustré de 20 grands déssins par Bouchot, Paris, 1855, p. 44. A copy is in the Rare Books Division of the New York Public Library.
24 Vibert atelier sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, April 21-28, 1887, nos. 849-856.
25 See Vibert, 1902, vol. I, p. 220.
26 For the shoes see ibid., vol. II, pp. 102-117.
27 See Gerald M. Ackerman, La Vie et l'oeuvre de Jean-Léon Gérôme, Paris, 1992, pp. 78-79, 226-227, nos. 192 and 193.
28 See William A. Eddy, Gulliver's Travels: A Critical Study, New York, 1963, pp. 100 and 110.
29 Ackerman, 1992, pp. 74, 214-215, no. 148.
30 For the Morten illustrations see Azimov, 1980, pp. 23 and 25.
31 Vibert, "Extraits du 'Moniteur lilliputien,'"1902, vol. I, pp. 223-25.
32 See Zafran, 1992, pp. 21-22 and 29.
33 Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Journal..., 1956 ed., Monaco, vol. XI, p. 9.
34 In E. Bénézit, Dictionnaire des Peintres..., Gründ, 1999, vol. 14, p. 205, it is noted that one was also sold in Brussels in 1874.
35 Vibert estate sale, Paris, November 25-26, 1902, no. 93.
36 Vibert atelier sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, April 21-28, 1887, no. 203.