Joseph Bail was born on January 22, 1862 in Limonest in the Rhone region of France. His father, Jean-Antoine Bail, was a genre painter influenced by the Dutch masters, and he focused his attention on depicting scenes from domestic life. Bail received his early training from his father and later studied in the studios of Jean Léon Gêrome and Carolus-Durand, two of the leading figures of the Parisian Academy of Fine Arts. Bail’s father instilled in him a respect for the works of Jean-Siméon Chardin and the Dutch masters, and encouraged him to view their works at the Louvre.
Bail debuted at the Salon of 1878, alongside both his father and brother, Frank, with Nature Morte (Still Life). The still life tradition in France, especially the work of Jean-Siméon Chardin, figured as an important element of Bail’s work, and many of his genre scenes include still life arrangements within them. Adhering to traditions of realism, rather than changing with new modern styles of representation, the Bails became part of a disappearing tradition. Their paintings glorified the past ways of life in France and found a sympathetic audience in the middle class. The Bail family represents one of the few associations of family painters in the Realist tradition remaining during the latter half of the nineteenth century. They could often be found exhibiting alongside one another at the annual Salons, showing work that displayed similar qualities in subject matter.
While still lifes dominated Bail’s early paintings, he expanded his themes to include scenes from the countryside, animals, and genre paintings, some influenced by summer stays in Bois-le-Roi, just outside of Fontainebleau. As his style progressed, he showed a strong affinity with his father’s work and that of Chardin and the Dutch masters, choosing to portray room interiors illuminated by a strong light source. His interiors often included a figure positioned near a window, illuminated by this strong sense of lighting.
Bail became best known for interior domestic scenes, often depicting daily household life. He met success with his comical paintings of maids and cooks and other scenes depicting everyday ordinary life. Bail’s paintings in this genre established him in the modern tradition of Realism. Joseph Bail presents a body of artwork that is inspired by the traditions of the old masters but also finds a kinship with contemporary Realism.
Bail regularly submitted to the Salons and toward the end of his career was hors concours, or exempt from having to submit his works for jury approval. He received awards in 1885 (Honorable Mention), 1886 (third-class medal), 1887 (second-class medal), 1889 Exposition Universelle (silver medal), 1900 Exposition Universelle (gold medal), and 1902 (medal of honor). He was also named Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1900, and was a member of the Société des Artistes Français. He died November 26, 1921.
The Cat’s Repast is a charming example of Joseph Bail’s interest in la vie quotidian. The everyday scene of a cat taking his meal reveals Bail’s mastery of the brushstroke, with his use of a variety of feathery and wider strokes to depict the cat’s head and fur. A splash of orange red on the cat’s ears and nose enlivens the portrait. In his typical light-hearted manner, Bail poses the aloof cat in front of its humble bowl, one that bears a meaty little bone. In the background the viewer sees the bottom of a well-worn cabinet, suggesting that we all share in the cat’s point of view. The artist is particularly adept at handling light. Here the soft light from the left of the picture reveals the earthy sheen of the terracotta tile floor and also casts shadows of the cat and its bowl on the right.