Jean Béraud (French, 1849-1936)
Jean Béraud (French, 1849-1936)

Devant l’Opéra

Jean Béraud (French, 1849-1936)
Devant l’Opéra
signed ‘Jean Béraud’ (lower right)
oil on panel
13 ¼ x 8 ¼ in. (33.7 x 20.9 cm.)
with M. Newman Ltd., London
Acquired by the father of the present owner, circa 1950.

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Alexandra McMorrow
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Lot Essay

Charles Baudelaire's famous epithet "Le peintre de la vie moderne", which he applied in 1863 to the artist and illustrator, Constantin Guys, is equally applicable to Jean Béraud, who worked at the turn of the century as a chronicler of the Parisian Belle Epoque. Baudelaire described a modern artist as one who is best able to "extract from fashion what it might suggest of the poetic in history, and the eternal from the transitory."

Béraud cast his eye across the whole spectrum of society and emotion but, like Guys, he had a particular predilection for bringing to life the dandyism, the elegance and, above all, the women of high society. They are portrayed invariably as objects of masculine desire, variously coquettish, vampish, pretty or ugly, but always fully aware of their power over the opposite sex.

Béraud was a master of anecdote, but his paintings are elevated beyond mere illustration not only by his profound sensitivity to the slightest subtlety of human gesture and expression, but also by a highly refined technique. This varied between a linear and highly detailed style, rendered with very fine brushstrokes, which he reserved for the principal figures and details of his narratives, and a broader, almost impressionistic technique used to describe the background setting and environment, and which brilliantly translated the streets of Paris in rain or sunshine.

In the present work, Béraud has brought all these skills to bear in a charming view of a young lady in front of the Paris Opéra. Crisply delineated in black against the hustle and bustle of the street behind her, she wears a tightly waisted dress and an elaborately tied, modish hat. But she is more than just a mannequin for the high fashions of her day; with great economy of means - a demure sideways glance and tightly pursed red lips - Béraud has created a modern embodiment of the charms of womanhood down the ages. As Baudelaire wrote in his section "La Femme" in his essay on Guys:

"Woman might be defined as a light, a look, an invitation to happiness, sometimes a simple word; but she is above all a general harmony, not only in her appearance and in her movement, but also in the chiffons, the gauzes and shimmering fabrics in which she wraps herself, and which are like attributes of her divinity…What poet would dare, in the description of pleasure caused by the apparition of a beauty, separate a woman from her costume? What man, whether in the street, the theatre, or in the park, has not appreciated - even if in the most disinterested manner - an expertly put together outfit, and has not taken away an image of it that is, inseparable from the beauty of she who wore it, thus making of them both - the woman and her dress - an indivisible totality?"

This painting will be included in the forthcoming supplement to the Béraud catalogue raisonné by Patrick Offenstadt.


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