André Lhote’s Les Rugbymen: a Cubist vision of the dynamic geometry of modern sport
The rising popularity of rugby and the emergence of Cubism coincided in France in the 1910s, producing works of art such as Lhote’s great painting, offered in Paris on 5 April
The second edition of the modern Olympic Games was held in Paris in 1900. Not having featured in the inaugural edition in Athens four years earlier, rugby was now included for the first time. It may surprise some to learn that France won the gold medal.
Rugby, after all, had originated in England in the 19th century. According to popular belief, this happened when William Webb Ellis, an impish pupil at Rugby school, picked up the ball and ran with it during a game of football (also known as soccer) in 1823.
The tale is probably apocryphal. However, it’s broadly accepted that rugby as we know it did come into existence at around this time at the school whose name it bears. The game was soon keenly being played at other English private schools, too.
How it became so popular so swiftly in France will be explored below — popular not just with players and fans, but also artists. Rugby would prove a favoured subject for Cubists in the second decade of the 20th century, and one of their paintings, Les Rugbymen by André Lhote, is being offered in the Art Impressionniste & Moderne sale at Christie’s in Paris on 5 April 2023.
In 1871, France had suffered the ignominy of convincing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. This concluded with the victory parade of the Imperial German Army through Parisian streets.
The path to restoring national glory seemed long. For the educationalist Pierre de Coubertin, however, that path was also clear. In his view, the key lay in emulating the school system of the United Kingdom, particularly the integral and character-forming role that organised sport played within it.
De Coubertin visited a plethora of English schools, including Rugby in 1886, where he said that he had ‘seen before [him] the cornerstone of the British Empire’.
Not long afterwards, he founded the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA), a body that governed most sports in France until the end of the First World War. Rugby was central to its ambitions, and under its guidance went from strength to strength.
In March 1892, two Parisian clubs, Stade Français and Racing Club de France, contested the first French rugby championship final. The referee was none other than de Coubertin, who later that decade would go on to found the modern Olympic Games — though that’s another story.
‘It’s exciting to capture a moving spectacle where everything seems to stand still for a second before starting up again at an even faster rate, like a pendulum at the end of its trajectory’ — André Lhote
Initially, rugby in France was the preserve of aristocrats and the haute bourgeoisie. By the 1910s, however, its appeal had grown more widespread. According to Philip Dine, in his book French Rugby Football: A Cultural History, attendance at international games before the outbreak of the First World War routinely exceeded 20,000. A heavy defeat for France in one of these, against Scotland in 1913, saw angry supporters invade the pitch, attack the referee and, in Dine’s words, ‘subsequently go on a rampage’ through Paris.
André Lhote was born in Bordeaux in 1885. After apprenticing as a cabinetmaker, he turned his attention to painting — and had his first solo show at Galerie Druet in Paris in 1910, four years after moving to the French capital.
His early work showed the influence of the Fauves. However, it is Cubism with which Lhote is most strongly associated. He was part of the group of Cubists known as the Section d’Or — also including Robert Delaunay, Albert Gleizes and Francis Picabia — who came together in the run-up to the First World War.
That conflict didn’t prove as much of a career obstacle for Lhote as it did for many, as he was declared unfit for service early on with an eye problem. Around 1917 he began a series of paintings of rugby matches.
The best-known example is today part of the Centre Pompidou’s collection in Paris. The picture coming to auction is smaller, but no less engaging.
From the players’ jerseys, two teams can be distinguished: one in burgundy, the other in checked amber and green. The viewer isn’t meant to admire a particular passage of play, however, or recognise a specific moment in a game. The painting is more about evoking the general buzz of a match.
In Cubist fashion, there’s no illusion of real space from a singular viewpoint. Instead, Lhote has broken the composition down into a set of planes that jostle against each other: a couple in blue to represent the sky, for example, and four or five in green to represent the pitch.
He depicts part of a building in the picture’s top left; and, it seems, the dotted faces of a crowd, on a grey plane to the right. It is the players themselves, however, who take precedence: strapping, angular figures whose forms intertwine as they would in a match.
Lhote described his fondness for rugby as follows: ‘It’s exciting to capture a moving spectacle where everything seems to stand still for a second before starting up again at an even faster rate, like a pendulum at the end of its trajectory.’
For Lhote and many of his Section d’Or peers, rugby was a dynamic, modern sport, which — like aviation and the Eiffel Tower — made apt subject matter for a dynamic, modern movement such as Cubism. Delaunay captured it in his painting The Cardiff Team from 1912-13 (above), of which a few different versions exist; and Gleizes captured it in Football Players (below), which is today owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
The evolution of Cubism was a complex affair. It’s worth noting, however, two ways in which the Section d’Or broadly differed from the so-called Analytic Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Cubism’s co-founders. First, it used brighter colours. Second, its scenes showed greater vitality and expansiveness (Picasso and Braque having tended to produce subtle portraits and still lifes).
Much of the vitality of Les Rugbymen derives from the wave shape that the players collectively form, viewed from left to right.
As well as making art, Lhote wrote about it and taught it — to great renown. Between the wars, he served as critic for La Nouvelle Revue Française; and in 1939 and 1950 respectively, he published treatises on landscape and figure painting. He also opened his own art school, the Académie André Lhote, in Montparnasse in the mid-1920s, counting Tamara de Lempicka, Hans Hartung and the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson among his pupils.
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In an interview with The New York Times late in life, Cartier-Bresson said: ‘All I know about photography I learned from André Lhote… There must be freedom, yes, but always with a sense of form and structure behind it.’
A look at Les Rugbymen proves that Lhote practised what he preached, displaying as it does a sense of freedom, form, structure and much else besides.
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