Lot 111
  • 111

Jean Béraud

300,000 - 500,000 USD
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  • Jean Béraud
  • La Conversation 
  • signed Jean Béraud (lower right)
  • oil on canvas
  • 22 by 15 1/2 in.
  • 55.9 by 39.3 cm


Sale: Galerie Charpentier, Paris, June 15, 1954, lot 4, illustrated
Collection of Margaret Thompson Biddle, Paris and New York (and sold, Sotheby's, New York, May 18, 2016, lot 35, illustrated)
Acquired at the above sale 


Patrick Offenstadt, Jean Béraud 1849-1935, The Belle Époque: A Dream of Times Gone By, catalogue raisonné, Cologne, 1999, p. 182, no. 201, illustrated


The following condition report was kindly provided by Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc.: This work is in beautiful condition. The canvas is unlined. Very faint stretcher marks are visible, but lining the canvas is certainly not necessary. The paint layer is clean. A handful of tiny dots of retouching have been added to the dark suit of the gentleman. The work should be hung as is.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

The opulent spectacle of Paris, and the city’s people in particular, was Jean Béraud's subject of choice. Whether promenading on the city’s grand boulevards or the banks of the Seine, in carriages in the Bois de Boulogne, or in private, intimate spaces such as in the present work, it is the endless parade of characters who animate Béraud’s splendid and idiosyncratic vision of Paris, and bring the subject life. Abandoning his early ambitions to become a lawyer, Jean Béraud studied portraiture with Léon Bonnat, alongside such well-known contemporaries as Gustave Caillebotte and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. While Béraud initially emulated his master's choice of subject and painted portraits of women and children, he was quickly drawn to representing modern urban life and developed his own inimitable style. Béraud’s affection for Parisians granted him notoriety and popularity; Marcel Proust described him as "a charming creature, sought in vain, by every social circle" and he was alleged to be a perfect gentleman, impeccably dressed and above trends and fashion (as quoted in Offenstadt, p. 7). He was intrigued by all aspects of la vie parisienne, and once wrote to fellow artist Alfred Roll "I find everything but Paris wearisome" (as quoted in Offenstadt, p. 14).

La Conversation takes place in a well-appointed interior, furnished with white painted chairs in the Louis XVI style, a rococo carved gilt wood console table and mirror in the Louis XV style (in which the woman is beautifully reflected). The walls appear to be part of a Louis XV carved, parcel-gilt and white-painted boiserie, similar to the salon ovale de la princesse at the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris. The couple are in evening costume, either having just returned from a ball or party, or about to go to one. Béraud is a master of subtle gestures and he has carefully rendered them here. With his hands grasping the back of the chair with intention, the man tilts back, somewhat awkwardly, perhaps in nervous anticipation. He cranes his head forward as if awaiting a response to his proposition as his companion looks down introspectively. Standing in her extraordinary cornflower blue gown, with a low bustle silhouette, wasp waist, peplum with basques and flounces on her skirt, the position of her hands holding an open fan may reveal a clue to her response.

With the balcony doors flung wide open, Béraud deliberately brings the humming street scene into the apartment. Carriages and café tables, lit by many streetlamps and lanterns, seem to be as integral to the scene as the lamps on the console table. In the neighboring apartments beyond, illuminated windows frame figures in silhouette, suggesting the constant activity and drama of living in the city of light.

Like many of his Impressionist contemporaries, Béraud was interested in the city’s increasingly blurred boundaries of public and private, and the balcony had become emblematic of a shift towards ambiguity. A ubiquitous architectural feature of the apartments in Haussmann’s Paris, the balcony was an extension of the home as well as a connection to the street, simultaneously inside and outside (David Van Zanten, “Looking Through, Across and Up, The architectural aesthetics of the Paris Street,” Impressionism, Fashion, Modernity, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum, New York, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 2012, p. 154-8). The space was a potent device for artists, notably employed by Édouard Manet in Le Balcon (1868-9, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, fig. 1) in which he depicts the artist Berthe Morisot, wearing a relaxed dress that suggests an intimate gathering, and violinist Fanny Claus, who is dressed to be out walking with gloves and parasol. Similarly, Gustave Caillebotte punctures interior boundaries in his painting, Interior, Woman at a Window (1880, Private Collection) depicting a woman dressed for a promenade and turned away from the viewer, looking through the closed door of her balcony towards the street.

The previous owner of La Conversation was the legendary American collector, Margaret Thompson Biddle. Upon her death, the Galerie Charpentier in Paris offered a portion of her extraordinary art collection, including masterpieces by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and a still life by Paul Gauguin which sold for three times its estimate and is widely credited for launching the secondary market for Impressionist art. The catalogue’s introduction was written by the renowned French politician André Cornu, and he rightly described Mrs. Thompson Biddle as an heiress, ambassadress, elegant hostess, and friend to all, a woman of great heart, charm, intelligence and beauty, American by birth, French in spirit.