The present work is a réplique of Rolla, Gervex’s succès de scandale of 1878, the artist’s most famous work and an icon of late-nineteenth-century French art. Here Gervex faithfully reprises the detail and palette of the monumental original (measuring 1.8 by 2.3m, now in the Musée d'Orsay), with only very minor changes - for example including a pink bow around the drapes to the right in the present work, perhaps serving to increase the work’s licentious appeal.
Having earned a second medal in 1874, Gervex had won hors concours status, and was theoretically able to have his Salon submissions accepted without fear of veto by the jury. However as the artist recalled, in mid-April of 1878 Rolla was pulled from the Salon, and from 20 April-20 July the work was shown at Bague’s gallery at 41 rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin. Although it is unclear whether Gervex intended to provoke the controversy the work aroused, he certainly made full use afterwards – with photographic reproductions of the work widely circulated, and Gervex likely painted the present work on commission for a collector who wanted their own piece of the scandal.
Taking as his inspiration the eponymous poem of 1833 by Alfred de Musset, Gervex transposes the narrative into fashionable contemporary Paris, signalled by the wrought iron railings and view of the Haussmannised cityscape beyond, the grand boulevard backdrop recognised by some viewers as the fashionable Boulevard des Italiens. Jacques Rolla, a well-born bourgeois, has decided to spend his final night with the prostitute Marion, having squandered his fortune on a life of debauchery. The scene depicts the morning after: while Marion lies asleep, Rolla broods on his fate and contemplates suicide by jumping from the window. The model for Marion is based on several women – the actress Ellen Andrée, a favourite of Renoir, Manet and Degas (she is the sitter in Degas’ L’Absinthe of 1876) posed for the body, but demanded that a different model be used for the face.
While Musset’s poem evoked a squalid and untidy interior, ‘rideaux honteux de ce hideux répaire’, Gervex’s interpretation is altogether more chic, with a Louis XVI bed and luxurious fittings. It is both the striking modernity, and in particular the hastily-removed accoutrements piled up in the still life to the lower right, which captivated viewers at the time – in fact Degas had suggested to Gervex that these elements be included in the composition. The combination of the luxurious dress and hastily removed red corset – pulled open from the front, rather than untied carefully by Rolla from the back, the upside-down top hat, and suggestively protruding cane, appeared to tell viewers all they needed to know about the encounter and specifically Marion – suggesting she was an independent and powerful ‘fille insoumise’ in a rich district of Paris, rather than working in one of the maison closes brothels elsewhere, regulated by the state.
Although Rolla can be seen as the heir to Manet’s self-possessed Olympia of 1865, in this way the depiction of Marion herself was relatively uncontroversial – being an academically painted nude, comparable to Gervex’s other Salon paintings of the 1870s, or indeed to the nude in his tutor Alexandre Cabanel’s Naissance de Vénus (fig. 1), a favourite of Napoleon III. As the critic in Le Petit Parisien noted of Rolla: ‘the young girl is nude, that’s for sure. But… there are some nudes every year which are more nude than others’.
Already a friend of Degas, and part of the artists’ circle in Pigalle, in 1876 Gervex met Manet for the first time, and was painted by Renoir as one of the dancers in his Bal du moulin de la Galette. It is significant that Rolla’s scandal in 1878 echoed that of Manet’s Nana of the previous year, which had also been refused by the Paris Salon on ground of immorality, and was instead displayed by a gallerist to public uproar (fig. 2). Both paintings find their literary equivalent in Emile Zola’s Nana, published in 1880.
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