In 1879, following the dismissal of his most celebrated work, Rolla (Fig. 1), from the Salon of the preceeding year, Gervex submitted yet another work that brought into question the nature of the narrative that he was attempting to portray to the public. While the figures and setting represented were not unusual within the time-honoured pictorial framework of Salon paintings, the actual goings-on were and will probably remain undetermined. Retour de bal portrays perhaps less socially outrageous content, yet it somehow feeds our fascination over a century on.
Rolla was supposedly based upon the poem by Alfred de Musset, of the same title, published in 1833 which recounts the tragic fall from grace of the aristocratic protagonist, Jacques Rolla, and a young woman named Marion, forced by economic circumstance into prostitution. In the present painting, however, we have no literary guidelines to assist our translation of this tense situation. The viewer is at liberty here, to speculate as to whether this is an unmistakably similar situation as in Rolla, with a married man and his courtesan, or whether it is a married man and his wife. The bouquet that has been cast to the floor also adds another dimension to the situation as did the corset that had been thrown to the floor in Rolla. Both men are situated in the middle distance by the window looking contemplatively into the inhabited space, both women lie to the right, one in post-coital abandon with her eyes closed, the other in uninhibited (though elegant) distress, with her slim wrist covering her supposedly weeping eyes.
With the knowledge of a preparatory work for Retour de bal, a number of contemporary critics suggested that Gervex had once again intended the female figure to have been of salacious origin. In the oil study (Fig. 2) it was noted that she was clothed in a common (not hand-made) corset, with no jewels or gloves to adorn her but with her pale, dirty-looking skin exhibited to the viewer. Yet in the final version, she wears a beautifully decorated evening gown - a total reworking of costume, and perhaps of meaning.
For all the speculation that this painting invites, the viewer cannot doubt that the astute calculation of composition and the masterly handling of the paint in this work are of exceptional quality. Already a firm follower of his Impressionist contemporaries, Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet, Retour de bal illustrates how Gervex had perfectly embraced the impressionist style and painterly technique and by so doing, had refined his tribute to modernity. Both a success within the academic and commercial arenas of the Parisian art world in 1879, it continues to be one of his most provocative and beautifully stylish works that has remained in private collections until today.