A native of Paris, Vibert first studied with his maternal grandfather, the engraver Jean-Pierre-Marie Jazet. He entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1857 at the age of sixteen and by 1864 had already won a medal at the Salon. A multi-talented figure, Vibert was also a published author, writing for Century Magazine as well as plays for the Palais Royale, Variitis and the Vaudeville. This penchant for the theatre is clearly evident in the artist's oeuvre, and his literary aspirations most certainly fueled his artistic expression.
In 1866, the young Vibert exhibited at the Salon a work done in collaboration with the Spanish-born artist Edouardo Zamacois, Entrance of the Toreadors. Vibert had met the Spanish artist in 1860 and perhaps under his influence traveled several times to Spain. One critic noted the painting was 'new and interesting with lively bold coloring' (E. About, Salon de 1866, Paris, 1867, p. 62) and from that point on the artist became a genre painter. He became a master of the small-scale amusing anecdotal scenes which had wide appeal among the sophisticated art patrons of Paris. Proust's Duke of Guermantes says of Vibert, 'The man's got wit to the tips of his fingers.'
In addition to his art, Vibert had a long and active association with the stage and all aspects of theatrical life in Paris. His wife was an actress in the Commédie française. The influence of the theatre upon his painting is evident throughout his oeuvre, and the narrative is always essential to the artistic. The critic Stranahan wrote, 'There is much 'story' in all of Vibert's works,' (C.H. Stanahan, A History of French Painting from its Earliest to Latest Practice, New York 1917, 348) but the story is not always obvious. Fortunately, in his last year the artist published the two-volume La Comedie en peinture in which he documented most of his works and provided explanatory narratives for each.
The entry pertaining to the subject work is found in the Third Book titled Scènes Espagnoles (see fig. 1). A translation follows:
La Ceinture du Grand-Papa
How things turn in the universe!
First the world (according to Galileo), the moon and the planets. Perhaps the millions of stars and the Sun itself turn without us knowing it. Although we do not get lost in space. Let's have a look at our globe. Everywhere there are wheels, turbines, balls, cylinders, cranks, propellers, gears, weather vanes, and windmills that turn on this earth, in the air and in water. The waltzers, the politicians, luck, and the dervishes tourne (turn, whirl, gyrate); the law turns; business and youth turn bad; things can detourne (siphon, turn away, turn sour, embezzle): teenagers, rivers, entrusted monies; and things that can return: the king, the smoker, the dagger in the heart, etc. Then there are words like tournesol (sunflower), tourne-bride ( turning-bridle), tourne-broche (spit-roasted), tournevis (screwdriver), tourniquet (a child's round-about), tourne-dos (beef-rounds), tourne-vent (turning winds). The sage turns his tongue seven times before he speaks. The meek turn around a pot. The defeated enemy tourne ca-saque (can't stand it). The inept orator turns in a vicious circle. And lastly, the world turns around the drunkard.
Now let's have a look at this small scene 'in-time.'
We find nothing more in this small corner of the world than a Spanish courtyard, steps that begin in stone and end in wood, turn twice before reaching the balustrade, that turns around the perimeter of the upper balcony. The old vines, like serpents, turn around the columns and coil around the flanks of the caryatids. The grandpa, in order to put on his sash, turns on himself, dressing on the point of his toes, like a workhorse getting ready to leave.
There are still some things that turn more than the rest: it's the head of the poor young boy. We can even say that he is completely turned (on).
On his half-turn, grandpa contemplates the children, who blush but do not speak. During the second half-turn, grandpa cannot see them, but he can guess what is happening and laughs to himself. (Here the story of the painting begins).
On the first turn, the lover says: 'Carmen, your sweet eyes attract my attention, but their sparkle also blinds me; I cannot stare at them just as I cannot stare at the Sun. Carmen, don't look at me!
On the second turn... your lips like... a rose...
On the third turn... your skin... like that of an angel...
On the fourth turn... my heart leaps... I love you!...
On the fifth: The grandfather can hear the lovers so they do not talk.
On the sixth:.. grandpa finds the lovers at the end of his sash, takes them in his arms and hugs them and says, 'The good Lord created the world in 6 days; we have made in 6 turns a marriage that will last.'
(fig. 1) Illustration of La ceinture du grand-papa from Jehan Georges Vibert's La Comédie en Peinture vol.II, p. 52, Paris, 1902.