PARIS – Much admired by connoisseurs, French artist Bernard Boutet de Monvel was a man many of us would enjoy knowing better. Born in Paris in 1881 and impossibly handsome, he lived a film- script-worthy life that ended in a 1949 plane crash in the Azores. In between, he displayed multiple artistic gifts – as painter, engraver, sculptor and fashion illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, as well as interior decorator – and demonstrated such courage in World War I that he was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1917 and given postings in Morocco until 1919.  In art, his early rectilinear paintings already embraced American hyperrealism. In society, his charisma, wit and impeccable manners made him a prince among the Parisian dandies and the international café society he depicted. Yes, Bernard Boutet de Monvel was quite the fabulous French early-20th-century figure, and Sotheby’s Paris sales of his works on 5 and 6 April come as a wonderful opportunity to better make his acquaintance.  

The son of the successful Parisian painter and illustrator Maurice Boutet de Monvel, Bernard abandoned the elite Lycée Louis-le-Grand at fifteen to become an artist. By age seventeen, he was a smart young blade and habitué of Maxim’s. Fascinated by geometry, simplicity and stylisation, he started exhibiting his work at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1903, the Salon d’Automne and Salon des Indépendants in 1905, and Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute as early as 1907. His quick progress brought more success, and by April 1912 the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago was devoting a show to a hundred of his etchings. 


Early on he had found his subjects among his friends. One of them, Comte Edgard de Barral, became the dashing figure in a painting from 1910, inspired by Boutet de Monvel’s seminal 1908–09 Sketch for a Portrait, which the artist composed entirely with a ruler and compass. Painted in shades of black, grey, beige and white, it depicts de Barral as a geometric dandy clad in morning coat and pin-striped trousers – one hand on a hip, the other on his walking  stick – posing insouciantly in the centre of Paris’s Place de la Concorde. The figure leaned toward the monumental; the shapes and motifs were reduced to pure lines and semicircles. Boutet de Monvel had found his signature style.   

The portraiture of the gilded world that the artist shared with his subjects established his reputation in France and across the Atlantic. When he arrived in New York in 1926,  a large show of his Paris paintings at the Park Avenue Anderson Galleries was greeted by a rapturous reception. Soon, du Ponts and Astors, Fricks and Mellons, Whitneys and Vanderbilts were vying to commission their portraits from the irresistible Frenchman. 

A new biography of the artist, Stéphane-Jacques Addade’s Bernard Boutet de Monvel: At the Origins of Art Deco (Flammarion), published in English and French editions to coincide with the sale, tells in fascinating detail the story of this life and the art that made it so. “The collection is very rich,” says Pascale Pavageau, Sotheby’s Paris Director of 19th Century Paintings & Drawings and Orientalist Paintings, who’s also in charge of the sale. “From more than two hundred paintings and three thousand drawings, we made a selection of about one hundred and fifty paintings and a thousand drawings, many of them fast sketches.” (A longtime Boutet de Monvel specialist, author Addade has been a consultant for the auction.) 

THE MAHARAJAH OF INDORE, 1933. Estimate €300,000–500,000.

The hotly coveted portraits are the undeniable magnets. Chief among them is Boutet de Monvel’s depiction of the Oxford-educated Maharajah of Indore, whose likeness was destined for the walls of Manik Bagh, his Indian palace. In this six-foot, stunningly ethereal composition from 1933, the young man, dressed in traditional costume, sits on a white throne against a pale background, the whole brought to vivid life by shots of shimmering colour: a garnet-hued turban on his head, two magnificent 47-carat diamonds (the Pears of Indore) around his neck, along with a luxurious fabric and a striped sabre scabbard at his feet. The portrait became Boutet de Monvel’s most famous artwork, eliciting such enthusiasm when it was exhibited at New York’s Wildenstein Gallery in 1934 that the artist painted a smaller replica, which is the top lot in Sotheby’s sale.

Another standout is Self-Portrait, Place Vendôme, from 1932, which allows viewers to see Bernard Boutet de Monvel as he saw himself. His impeccably cut jacket, grey tie in sync with grey hat, walking stick and cream gloves all convey his discreet distinction, as does the simple daisy in his buttonhole. Interestingly, although he pictured himself perched on a desk at the Ritz, his composition also placed the Ritz on the far side of the square. “He was a perfect draftsman, so it wasn’t a mistake. He loved the Ritz, went there for lunches and teas with friends,” Pavageau  explains. “Here he took a shortcut with the background.   

It reminds me of the Grand Renaissance, of Bronzino and a bit of Mannerism. The man is dominating, showing his character, his social position, his elegance – showing what he wanted to show.”  

Among other exceptional portraits are the intimate family paintings of Boutet de Monvel’s beautiful Anglo-Chilean wife, Delfina Edwards Bello, whom he married in 1921, and of their daughter, Sylvie, born in 1922. Delfina playing the guitar, Delfina wearing an ensemble by the couturier Pierre Piquet, Sylvie at nineteen with a geometrically perfect hairstyle – all exhibit the artist’s special knack for sophistication and modernity. A small 1922 portrait of Delfina in profile, wearing a feathered Jeanne Lanvin hat, had a wide ripple effect. Exhibited in the artist’s first New York show in 1926, it became a model for a series of similar portrait profiles of such socially prominent Americans as Mrs Lucy McCormick Blair Linn, Mrs Alexis Felix du Pont de Nemours Jr and Mrs Francis Warren Pershing, whose replicas are being offered in the auction.  

In 1935, William Kissam Vanderbilt Jr became another eager portrait sitter. Painted facing the viewer, he was dressed as an admiral in a nod to his grandfather Cornelius’s nickname, “Commodore,” with his villa on Terminal Island, Florida, in the background. For the version that is being auctioned, the artist had Vanderbilt in profile and wearing more casual clothes. “Boutet de Monvel realised simple, elegant and decorative portraits,,” notes Pavageau, “but his approach was original. He developed a very modern photographic style close to Precisionism.”   

Aficionados’ emphasis on portraits – and on Boutet de Monvel as portraitiste mondain, or society portraitist – has often obscured other sides of his artistic output. One such side relates to his military postings in Morocco, where he painted such powerful Orientalist works as Femme debout, Fez. The striking canvas of a black female worker wrapped head to toe in a cone-shaped, red-striped traditional blanket-like battaniye may represent the direction the artist might have taken had his portraiture not been so monetarily successful. His geometric style became almost abstract, and the paintings he made then – such as Women on a Terrace, with its simple white-robed figures – are some of his most admired works. Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé acquired two of them for their Villa Majorelle in Marrakesh, and the pictures influenced celebrated French interior designer Jacques Grange.  


The sale also highlights Boutet de Monvel’s talent for interior decor. Like his paintings, these projects reflect his place in – and taste for – Art Deco, from the octagonal mirror-panelled dining table he designed for himself around 1927 to the circa 1938 leather and wood writing table by Jean-Michel Frank he bought for his Paris home. Unsurprisingly, on the rare occasion when his decorating failed to meet with approval, Boutet de Monvel still managed to come out a winner. A case in point, his circa 1935 Diane and Actaeon may be the most telling work in the sale. When Mrs Harrison Williams, better known by her later married name, Mona von Bismarck, rejected the four decorative panels – Hunting, Quarrying, Resting and Actaeon Discovered – that Boutet de Monvel had conceived to decorate the bathing pavilion at her Bayville, New York, home, the artist turned them into a stunning painting. It was, and still is, a perfect illustration of Boutet de Monvel’s superior ability to navigate artistic fields and privileged milieus with effortless grace.

Paris-based Jean Bond Rafferty is European contributing editor for Milieu magazine. She writes about design, style, jewellery and real estate for the International New York Times and 1stdibs’s Introspective magazine.  

Collection Boutet de Monvel will be on view at Sotheby’s Paris from 29 March–4 April. Auction: 5 and 6 April. Enquiries: +33 1 53 05 53 10.  

Lead image: A detail from Boutet de Monvel's Le Bouquiniste. Estimate €3,000–5,000.