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Lady in Black

Lady in Black
signed 'J.E. Blanche' (lower right)
oil on canvas
63 x 49 in. (160 x 124.5 cm.)
Painted circa 1890.
with The Lasson Gallery, London, 1989, as Portrait of the Comtesse de Greffuhle.
Private Collection, New York.
Purchased from the above by the present owner, April 2008.
F. Henri, "Jacques-Émile Blanche: portrait painter", The Studio, n°129, vol. XXX, December 1903, p. 198, illustrated, as Portrait.
F. L. S. Yann, Derniers impressionnistes, le temps de l'intimité, Château de Saint-Rémy-en-l'Eau, 2018, p. 85, illustrated, as Portrait la comtesse de Greffulhe.

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Lot Essay

Jacques-Émile Blanche was born in Paris but raised in the fashionable suburb of Passy. He spent his childhood in his father’s clinic that once belonged to the Princesse de Lamballe and he was educated in an atmosphere of culture and refinement. He was the son and grandson of two celebrated psychiatrists who treated the elite of Paris, among them the poet Gérard de Nerval. From an early age, Blanche was exposed to the literary and artistic luminaries of late 19th century Paris, and he was comfortable in the company of famous artists, musicians, writers and socialites. He spent some time in the studio of Henri Gervex, and won a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1900. He regularly exhibited at both the Paris Salon and the London Royal Academy and was made a Commander of the Legion of Honor that same year. Blanche was himself a man of letters who published novels (more or less autobiographical) which, like his paintings, give insight to the manners or mores of the social elite of the Belle Époque. Portraits of a Lifetime which was written and published in English in 1937, and its sequel More Portraits of a Lifetime published the following year, were essentially chronicles of life in and about Paris around the turn of the century. Doubtless, the artist drew upon his social and artistic interaction with the cream of Parisian and London society as a basis for his novels, and his insight into the personalities of his subjects as an artist is clearly reflected in his writing.

Blanche was in enormous demand as a portraitist on both sides of the Channel. He travelled to England regularly from 1884 and in 1904, opened a studio near his friend John Singer Sargent. He met Sargent in Paris, where his clients included Edgar Degas, Claude Debussy, Maeterlinck, Paul Claudel, Colette,
Andre Gide and Jean Cocteau.

During the last quarter of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, painting and the decorative arts adapted to the elegance and sophistication of the lives that were led by the wealthy. Much of the wealth derived from the expansion of industry in Europe at a time of great economic growth, and even more came from the ever increasing spending power of rich patrons of art from North America who themselves wanted to take back across the Atlantic a taste of the splendour that was Europe. Of all the genres of art, the one which is the most reflective of this golden age is that of portraiture. The great artistic luminaries of this age were all portrait painters; John Singer Sargent, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, James Jebusa Shannon, Giovanni Boldini and Jacques-Emile Blanche. This was the grand age of portraiture and Paris and London were its epicentres. These portraits offer the modern viewer a glimpse into the Gilded Age, an age of glamorous women, dashing men and beautiful children, all depicted in opulent surroundings. This was also an age of astounding literary achievement and there was no better way to immortalize authors than through portraiture. Blanche in particular painted a number of contemporary authors and these portraits are executed with a sensitivity which could only be mustered by this peintre-ecrivain.

The Belle Époque was also an age of women. Women figure predominantly in the portraits by the major artists of the time and it was a time of breakthrough for women writers, artists, actors and patrons of the arts. It was the time of Mary Cassat, Edith Wharton, and Isabella Stuart Gardner. For the present sitter Blanche has chosen a large canvas, and it is clear that he is following a paradigm established by other portrait painters of the era, particularly John Singer Sargent. Sargent's Portrait of Katherine Lewis bears a striking resemblance to Blanche’s work, particularly in the colour palette. Both artists have chosen blacks and blues to show off the porcelain skin of their sitters and both have set her against a dark background. Katherine Lewis was a highly intelligent young woman, well-connected in artistic and literary circles and her intelligence is clearly captured in her countenance. Sargent was the master of capturing elegance on canvas, and Blanche has used the same motif with the graceful curvature of the hand as in Sargent’s Portrait de Edouard Pailleron.

The figure of this portrait is seated in a simple chair in an interior (which is Blanche’s studio in Auteuil) that is executed in quick, broad brushstrokes so as not to detract from the sitter. She looks straight out at the viewer; however, her head is tilted slightly to one side, as if she has just asked a question and is waiting to hear the answer. Her body is perched on the chair, and it appears that she is about to rise. The kinetic energy created by the simple use of the contrapposto position informs the viewer that this is a woman who gets things done. Her shawl has fallen away, as has her fur wrap. She does not appear to notice. Her black dress and hat serve to emphasize her facial features and her hands, with their long, elegant fingers that so lightly grasp the ends of the blue shawl on the chair behind her. The result is a portrait of force and dynamism.

We would like to thank Jane Roberts for confirming the authenticity of this work and for her assistance in preparing this note. The present lot is included in the Jacques-Émile Blanche online catalogue raisonné by Jane Roberts and Muriel Molines as no.76.

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