Private Collection, USA
Isidore Pils was the son of the painter, Francois Pils, and, as a young man, the pupil of Guillaume Lethiere. As an adult, Pils studied with Francois-Edouard Picot in Paris, where an endless string of health problems began to plague his art career. Despite this, he won the Grande Prix de Rome in 1838, with his painting, St. Peter Healing a Lame Man at the Gate of the Temple, and returned to France in 1844. Pils’ greatest success was found in his realist approach to depicting scenes of the Crimean War; the victorious and patriotic appeal of his paintings earned him several commissions from the French government. Pils became a professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1863, where his reputation as a realist military painter and portrait artist remained high until his death in 1875.
In our picture, Portrait of a Man in his Study, the artist depicts a young man, elegantly dressed, sitting at his reading table. One hand rests absently on his knee, the other he uses to prop up his head. Legs crossed, he sits comfortably with a slight slouch, as if too absorbed in his reading to notice his posture. It is an intimate portrait, painted with a keen sense of the figure and his activity. Rather than presenting the sitter traditionally up close, from the front, Pils chooses a full figure in profile, putting a slight distance, both emotionally and spatially, between the viewer and the subject. The palette is dark, predominated by brown umber, and contributes to the sense of enclosed space and the atmosphere of intent focus. Only the figure's face, hand, and book are treated in lighter tones, which allow them to stand out, further emphasizing the man's reading activity. His face bears a hint of a smile, his eyes scan the pages of his book in unbroken concentration. He seems completely unaware of his surroundings, or of the viewer's presence, prompting one to search further into the painting, to know more about this man - what is he reading and imagining? Indeed the viewer is drawn into this somber, focalized world as seen by Pils; we are able to project our own imagination onto what the painting holds.