Fernand Pelez was a powerful and successful artist, who is best remembered for his poignant depictions of the human condition. But who was this fascinating, but relatively unknown painter? Unfairly or unintentionally, Fernand Pelez has been omitted from the predictable canon of nineteenth century European art. That is to say, until recently. In 2009, a major retrospective of his work, titled, Fernand Pelez – La parade des humbles was held at the Petit Palais in Paris, and currently two of his masterworks are included in a landmark exhibition, Illusions of Reality – Naturalist Painting, Photography, Theatre and Cinema, 1875-1918. The first modern art historian to pay homage to this fascinating artist was no less than the eminent Robert Rosenblum, who singled him out to write: "When future generations of art historians reconstruct these years [later nineteenth-century painting], may they not forget Fernand Pelez!" (Robert Rosenblum, "Fernand Pelez, or The Other Side of the Post-Impressionist Coin," in Art, the Ape of Nature, Studies in Honor of H.W. Janson, New York, 1981, p. 716).
Trained in the workshop of Alexandre Cabanel, Pelez's early works mostly mirror the paintings of his teacher, and reveal an almost dogmatic adherence and dedication to acceptable Salon subjects. By the early 1880s, the Salon themes of Cabanel had disappeared and in their place, Pelez began to favor scenes depicting the tragic fate of some of the most impoverished members of the French working class – the homeless, child beggars, old men standing in bread lines, washerwomen and circus performers. These figures, culled from the underbelly of Paris society, became Pelez's new protagonists.
The artist was at the height of his career when his 1888 Salon entry, Grimaces et Misère impressed both the critics and the public with its compelling portrayal of an entourage of itinerant circus performers (fig. 1). Gargantuan in size, (it measures 222 x 625 cm. or 87 x 246¼ inches), and painted in five parts, it "presents a glum view of the contrast between the goals of rousing entertainment in a popular Parisian circus troupe and the actual melancholy and isolation of the performers" (Rosenblum, p. 711). Coincidentally, Georges Seurat exhibited a very similar painting, Circus Sideshow (fig. 2) simultaneously at the Salon des Indépendants, adding another dimension to a reevaluation of Fernand Pelez (see Rosenblum, pp. 711-712, for a comprehensive comparison between the two works).
The painting included in our auction is a previously unknown version of Grimaces et Misère. A comparison of the two paintings raises interesting questions, the most relevant being, which came first? Unfortunately, there is a scarcity of original documentation on Pelez, which might shed light on his working methods. Judging from a photograph of his Montmartre studio, it was a grand space (fig. 3), and Pelez was known to have had students. In fact, in a posthumous full-page tribute in the New York Sun (1914), the names of three pupils, Mme. Charles de Chorlet, Mlle. Mennecier and Mlle. Achard, are mentioned. When examined side by side, certain areas of our painting – such as the faces of the musicians and the dwarf – appear not as polished as the Salon version; and one may speculate that Pelez assigned a studio assistant the task of working on a replica after the original. This was certainly the practice in the studios of academically trained artists, such as Cabanel, Bouguereau and Gérôme, especially when they received commissions to do repliques of popular paintings. However, the article in the New York Sun recounts that "there [in his studio] he had worked for a quarter of a century for love of what he produced refusing to exhibit his pictures, unwilling to sell them and only at rare intervals consenting to paint and part with a duplicate."
We have conservatively catalogued our painting as Pelez and Studio; however there is one major difference between the two works that argues the smaller version may have been painted first and is autograph Pelez. There is an obvious difference when one compares the borders of each painting. In our work, more decoration is visible in the scalloped canopy, which hangs above the clown and extends to the furthest musician. There is also more space on both the left and right borders, but most striking is the bottom edge of our painting. There is much greater depth to the wooden staircase, but most interesting is the colorful banner that appears below the young acrobats; what resembles an abstract arabesque design in the Salon painting is clearly identifiable as a pair of circus tumblers performing their act in our work. The fact that these extra elements do not appear in the final Salon version argues against our painting being slavishly copied from the gigantic original. In other words, replicas are almost always exact copies. Instead, one may speculate that Pelez, envisioning a monumental painting more than 20 feet in length, needed a "preview" of how this subject would look on a grand scale, and once this was accomplished, he did not find it necessary to finish every detail in the smaller version. Indeed, while the faces of the musicians and the dwarf are less refined, most of the painting, especially the hands of the first seated musician and the powdered face of the clown, are of the highest quality and suggest an artist of remarkable talent. While we may never know why the borders of the final painting were altered, the answer may be something as simple as the need to reduce the size in order to remove it from the artist's studio.
A few months after the May 1888 Salon opening, the popular French weekly magazine, l'Illustration wrote a feature story about Grimaces et Misère, in which some of the models were identified (see l'Illustration, September 29, 1888). The article recounts the problems Pelez had with two of the musicians, the clarinet player, who constantly disappeared and the trombone player, who was a "happy drunk." The circus barker is also mentioned; he was a man Pelez had met at a side show in Neuilly. The article recounts Pelez's motivation, inspiration and method; "he wanted to represent the sad fatality of the existence of a colony of funambules. In order to do this, he searched the circuses (les fêtes foraines) looking for the most appropriate types. His idea was to combine in some way, in the same canvas, the total life of these unfortunate people" (l'Illustration, p. 240). As noted by Dr. Gabriel Weisberg, "It was apparent that the commotion over the canvas generated a need for the work to be popularized in a weekly publication [l'Illustration] with a broader dissemination than a short-lived Salon exhibition. The use of this layout, at the end of the 1880s, for a painting with this type of depressing theme revealed that Pelez had hit a nerve in French society..." (Gabriel Weisberg, Illusions of Reality: Naturalist Painting, Photography, Theatre and Cinema, 1875-1918, exh. cat., New York, 2010, p. 95).
The performers Pelez chose for Grimaces et Misère came from an inferior caste of French circus types, the Saltimbanques. They were a wandering troupe, who appeared every spring to entertain and cheer up Parisians after long, grey winters (Isabelle Collet, Fernand Pelez, la parade des humbles, exh, cat, Paris, 2009, p. 92). In the amazing arc of Pelez's career, he had transcended the Academic aesthetic and become a Realist, but at the same time, his raw depiction of the underlying misery of the existence of the Saltimbanques is made all the more compelling because of his hard-edged Academic technique. The viewer's first glance is irresistibly drawn to the vibrant palette and the lively circus subject, but it does not take long for the reality of the scene to unfold. The viewer's eye glides from the youngest member of the troupe, the crying little boy to his three sisters, sympathetic, bored and resolute, ending with the haggard older woman, shown in profile, who is obviously their mother. This is the cycle of life for these people. It culminates in old age as Pelez has symbolized in the three musicians, "lucky" enough to still be performing as part of the musical sideshow. Placed at the center of the stage is the smiling barker, who is most likely the father of this young troupe of funambules, the deformed dwarf and the grotesque powdered and painted clown, his costume decorated with the image of a bright red, green-eyed toad. Their job is to beckon the passerby – for a fee of 30 centimes - to climb the stairs and go behind the red curtain, already being opened by a mysterious hand. Two parrots and a monkey complete the performance. The show is about to begin.
"In calling him [Pelez] the painter of tramps, outcasts, the unfortunate, the world does not rightly christen him. He was a mystic, he bestowed on beggars the purest, finest pictorial execution that dreams can conceive. His brush has wiped tears of unjust sorrow from the face of the unhappy" (The New York Sun, 1914). The critical success of Grimaces et Misère was followed less than ten years later with disappointment for Pelez, when he failed to win the Medaille d'honneur for another monumental Salon work, L'Humanite! in 1896. From this point on, Pelez never sold or exhibited another painting. He turned to a reclusive, almost mystical life, and died in his studio in 1913.
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