Lot 6
  • 6

Henri Gervex

400,000 - 600,000 GBP
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • Henri Gervex
  • Rolla
  • signed H. Gervex lower left
  • oil on canvas
  • 86 by 108.5cm., 33¾ by 43¾in.


Private collection, France (sale: Sotheby's, London, 19 June 1984, lot 79)
Pyms Gallery, London (purchased at the above sale)
Purchased from the above by the present owner circa 1984


London, Pyms Gallery, Rural and Urban Images: An Exhibition of British and French Paintings 1870-1920, 1984, no. 8, illustrated in the catalogue


The following condition report has been prepared by Hamish Dewar Ltd., 13 and 14 Mason's Yard, St James', London, SW1Y 6BU: UNCONDITIONAL AND WITHOUT PREJUDICE Structural Condition The canvas is lined and is securely attached to a keyed wooden stretcher. This is providing an even and stable structural support. Paint surface The paint surface has an even varnish layer. The paint surface is entirely stable. Inspection under ultra-violet light shows scattered carefully applied retouchings, including: 1) a small O-shaped retouching within the bed clothes above the female figure's head, 2) two inverted L-shaped retouchings to the right of the female figure's left foot, 3) spots and lines of retouching within the sky in the upper left quadrant of the composition, 4) very small spots and lines within the female figure's chest and torso, and within the bed clothes, and 5) a few very small spots and lines within the male figure's shirt. Other small spots and lines of retouching are also visible. It should be noted these retouchings have all been very carefully applied. Summary The painting would therefore appear to be in good and stable condition.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

'Manet, Degas, Stevens, the young, the old, everyone trooped in front of the canvas which was already famous before it entered the Salon…However, hardly had it been hung on the wall when the surintendant des Beaux- Arts, Turquet, gave the brutal order that it be removed on grounds of immorality, with the complicity of the Salon jury…that’s how an art dealer offered to exhibit Rolla at his shop on the Chaussée-d’Antin… I accepted, as you can imagine, with gratitude, and for three months there was indeed an uninterrupted procession of visitors with a queue of carriages backed up to the Opera'
Henri Gervex

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.