Through the early 1870s, Firmin-Girard’s submissions to the Paris Salon
followed the shifting trends in public taste from historical subjects and scenes taken from the Siege of Paris to more fanciful Japonisme and Orientalist themes. While these compositions earned Firmin-Girard early accolades, his submission of Le Quai aux Fleurs
to the Salon
of 1876 would propel him to international fame. The large painting hung in a prominent spot facing the entrance to the Grand Salon, and the artist remembered “the crowd which was stationed continually before my picture and that it was not always easy to get near it” (from a letter republished in the catalogue of The Private Collection of the Late Theron Butler
, 1910). At times police were required to control the throngs appreciating the work at the Salon, proving the highly detailed, densely populated Le Quai aux Fleurs
invites careful and repeated viewing. The expansive, panoramic composition is set along the Quai de la corse, long the site of one of Paris’ many flower markets. The façades of recognizable landmarks extend in the distance along the Seine from the Tribunal de Commerce at left, followed by the Tour l’Horloge, and double-towers of la Conciergerie (today part of the Palais de Justice), while at the right edge of the composition a sliver of the Théâtre du Châtelet can be seen along the Quai de la Mégisserie, with the Colonnade of the Louvre and the Pavillon de Flore in the distance. Echoing public appreciation were reams of reviews throughout Europe and the United States in which critics applauded Firmin-Girard’s ability to capture both the crowded market and the distinct characters of the “la-va-et vient de Paris
” (“Chronique,” Le Courrier de France
, May 3, 1876 as quoted in Firmin-Girard, p. 75). Paragraphs of text were made up of writer’s attempts to describe each of the painting’s figures from the members of smartly dressed bourgeoisie families, babies with their nursemaids, omnibus riders, porters pulling handcarts, and the flower vendors offering an array of brightly-hued roses, daisies, violets, and rhododendrons together with fragrant herbs. So specific is Firmin-Girard’s view that he includes a marchand de coco
, perhaps an enigmatic figure to today’s viewer but one immediately recognizable on Paris streets in the nineteenth century. From the fontaine à coco
he wore on his back, the marchand
dispensed a refreshing drink of licorice and lemon flavored water into silver cups strung around his waist. As depicted in the present work, a savvy marchand
attracted customers by decorating his fontaine
with elaborate ornaments, like a gold clock and statue, easily visible above the crowds.
Firmin-Girard’s observation of “modern life” invited some critics to compare Le Quai aux Fleurs to a photograph, suggesting the work’s allegiance to realist painting of the period. A writer for The Art Journal explained: “As a work of Art [sic], this painting is elaborated with extraordinary fidelity, and the amount of its detail is almost excessive” (“Firmin-Girard’s Flower-Market," p. 48). Interestingly, this same critic, along with at least once French colleague, noted that Americans in particular were enamored by Le Quai aux Fleurs as it portrayed all they “most love… in connection with the great capital… Paris is gorgeous, and no point in it is more representative of its cheerful gaiety, a splendid kaleidoscope of life made up of trifles, than are its flower-sellers” (“Firmin-Girard’s Flower-Market," p. 48). Perhaps the American love of Paris inspired New York’s Alexander Turney Stewart, the dry-goods magnate and self-made multi-millionaire, to select Le Quai aux Fleurs to join his impressive art collection. Sadly, Stewart died before the painting was collected, leaving it to be quickly purchased by Theron Butler for 85,000 francs or reportedly $22,500 (over $480,000 today) (“Firmin-Girard’s Flower-Market," p. 48). Following the sale of Butler’s collection in 1910, Le Quai aux Fleurs entered yet another prominent American home, that of the American diplomat Mr. Sheldon and Mrs. Mary (née Crocker Alexander) Whitehouse, the granddaughter of the San Francisco railroad tycoon Charles Crocker (1822-1885). The present work hung in Mr. and Mrs. Whitehouse's New York apartment at 1040 Fifth Avenue. Mrs. Mary Whitehouse was one of the first female trustees of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Le Quai aux Fleurs then passed to their son, The Honorable Charles S. Whitehouse, former United States Ambassador to Laos and Thailand in the 1970s and accomplished equestrian.