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Henri Gervex (French, 1852-1929)
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Henri Gervex (French, 1852-1929)


Henri Gervex (French, 1852-1929)
signed 'H Gervex' (lower left)
oil on canvas
25½ x 16 1/8 in. (64.8 x 41 cm.)
J.C. Pralong-Gourvennec, Exhibition catalogue: Henri Gervex 1852-1929, Bordeaux, Paris and Nice, 1992, p. 36 (illustrated p. 27)
Paris, Cercle de l'Union Artistique, possibly 1881 and 1882;
Paris, Galeries Georges Petit, 1885.
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Lot Essay

'Nana stands in front of her mirror and casts a last glance at her attractive figure. A dandified punter, seated in profile and smoking a cigarette is twirling his moustache, mocked by the old madam who is smirking in the background. A fine painting of which Mr Zola should be proud to be the owner'. Doctor Véron, 'Exposition Galerie Georges Petit', Annuaire Véron, Poitiers, 1885, p. 222

'Gervex, a disciple of Cabanel, was led by the spirit of the age and is now undergoing an interesting evolution. Here, we are witness once again to the victory of naturalist painting.' (Emile Zola, 'Nouvelles littéraires et artististiques', Le Messager de l'Europe, June 1879.)

I don't claim that Gervex has copied the Impressionists, but it seems obvious that he is expressing what those painters would have wanted to express, but by using the techniques that he mastered by passing through Cabanel's studio. (Emile Zola, 'Nouvelles littéraires et artistiques', op. cit.)

This small scale painting stems from a key moment in Gervex's career. Above all it is a historical testimony to a crucial period in 19th century French art, one that is subtle, indeed literary, as much as it is artistic.

In 1877, Edouard Manet (1832-1883) painted his own version of Nana (Kunsthalle, Hamburg). The title was inspired by Anna, a beautiful redhead who also posed for Renoir, but who was above all a favourite model of Gervex's. Manet's painting, rejected yet again by the Salon jury, this time as an 'outrage to moral decency', was exhibited at Giroux, a picture dealer on the boulevard des Capucines. Giroux watched the public troop past the picture, either laughing or indignant: Manet remained a 'cursed' artist.

Although he was also linked to his elders in the Impressionist movement - particularly Degas - whom he frequented in his native Montmartre, in contrast to Manet the young Henri Gervex, who was a pupil of Cabanel at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, was a rising star of the Salon. He enjoyed a sensational debut, but a year later was to suffer the same fate as Manet, and for the same reasons. In 1878, his painting Rolla (Musée des Beaux Arts, Bordeaux) was rejected in a tide of scandal for 'immorality'. Gervex's canvas was also exhibited at a dealer's, Bagne, on the rue de la Chaussée-d'Antin. In contrast to Manet's picture, however, Gervex's attracted an enormous, but enthusiastic, crowd. It definitively sealed the wordly fame of its author, whilst (in Zola's words) making of him a "renegade of the Ecole des Beaux Arts".

In 1878 Gervex was one of the recognized lovers of the famous and fiery demi-mondaine Louise Valtesse de la Vigne. His Rolla, inspired originally by the poet Alfred de Musset, aptly described a contemporary scene that would have been considered shocking at the time: the morning after a night of love-making between a prostitute and her client. The theme of prostitution was at the time a favourite of modern painting as it was for naturalist literature. The fate meted out by the Salon authorities to the young Gervex and to the painter of Olympia probably influenced Emile Zola to throw himself into the writing of the novel that he named after Manet's painting, Nana (Fig.1). The principal character was based on Valtesse, whom Gervex had presented to Manet as the quintessential Second Empire courtesan. Published in 1879 and turned into a play at the theatre de l'Ambigu in 1881, Zola's Nana continued the scandal set off by Manet's painting.

Gervex was quickly reconciled with the artistic authorities, and was subsequently to enjoy the glory and career of a successful artist under the Third Republic. An embittered Zola turned him into the arriviste painter Fagerolles in his novel L'Oeuvre, published in 1886.

However, during the 1880s, the painter of Rolla was at the centre of a debate on modern art. Gervex's admiration for Manet pushed him to fight for the latter's admission to the Salon of 1881, and even the winning of a medal. In the same year, he depicted him - with Zola and Valtesse - in prime position in his Civil Marriage, a public decoration he executed for the 19th arrondissement in Paris.

Gervex never forgot that he was in many ways linked to the genesis of Nana - both the painting and the novel. The present lot is in all probability the canvas that was presented in 1881 and 1882 to the Parisian 'Cercle de l'Union Artistique', and is certainly the one which was exhibited in 1885 at the Galerie Georges Petit, where it was much remarked upon.

A small-scale work such as this fits the mould of a realist illustration. Wishing as much to flatter his own glory as much as to serve the author and the painter to whom he was paying homage, Gervex included in the work a large part of his own personal furnishings that were in keeping with his self-image as a young elegant artist: the large full-length mirror and the Empire-style armchair were then considered the height of good taste. They may also perhaps be a political allusion to Zola's Second Empire. If Gervex takes up again Manet's composition - the courtesan in her petticoat standing on the left and, on the right, her worldly client who sits contemplating her - he adds to these two figures that of the servant Zoé, taken directly from the novel. It is in fact obvious that the painter took pleasure in following Zola's naturalism and in giving a very marked psychological character to the three protagonists. Also noteworthy is that the seated man appears very full of himself, is sporting shiny ankle-length boots and an elegant, showy costume, and is conspicuously smoking a type of cigarette commonly referred to as the time as 'anglaise' (English), whilst simultaneously twirling a stereotypically thick moustache. He is, indeed, the Prince of Scotland in Zola's novel, and Gervex has made a point of giving him the all the attributes of a British caricature of the period. As for Nana, she is just as coquettish as Manet's prototype, even if Gervex allows himself a few notable differences. Firstly, he is depicting a contemporary scene of courtesan life, for example the style of the petticoat and the low corset of the young woman are very different from one picture to the other, since Gervex's picture reflects the sartorial style of the 1880s. Moreover, while the redhead in the Hamburg painting is slightly turned towards her companion, Gervex's demi-mondaine is much more wily: she is busy lacing up (or unlacing) her corset whilst rustling up her petticoat, and, above all, makes sure she is turned in such a way to the mirror for her knowing smile to be seen by her admirer. In other words she is checking the effect of her 'lures' and the scene is unambiguous: she is very much Nana, "la mouche d'or" (the golden fly).

When Gervex painted this picture, he was part of the intimate circle of Guy de Maupassant. More than Zola perhaps, one sees in his painting the psychological finesse and the slightly caustic lightness of tone that drifts from the best pages of Maupassant in works such as La Maison Tellier.

Gervex was inspired by Manet for the overall composition, by Zola or Maupassant for the subject and the naturalist treatment, by Degas for the composition, and even perhaps by his friend Forain from whom he borrows the precision - even cruelty - of a moral study.

Gervex clearly wanted to stake his claim to as a modern painter in whom Zola had seen 'a victory of naturalist painting.' Certainly, this didn't escape the notice of the commentators of the time.

Another painting by Gervex of Nana in her boudoir was sold at auction in Paris in 2001. That version followed on directly from Rolla and is therefore much less faithful to Manet and to Zola than the present lot.

We are grateful to Jean-Christophe Pralong-Gourvennec for his assistance with the preparation of this catalogue entry.

This painting will be included in the catalogue raisonné on Henri Gervex currently being prepared by Jean-Christophe Pralong-Gourvennec.

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