Oil on paper mounted on canvas
27 1/2 x 36 inches (70 x 91 cm)
Framed: 36 1/4 x 43 3/4 inches
Signed: lower right
Exposition Internationale d’Art de Venise, no. 1339
Jean-François Raffaëlli was a French painter, sculptor, and printmaker. Born in Paris April 20, 1850, Raffaelli showed an early interest in music and theater before becoming a painter in 1870. Raffaeli received his artistic training at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, where he enrolled in order to study under the painter Jean-Leon Gérôme. He remained exclusively a painter until 1876, when he did his first etching. From this time on, he was passionately devoted to printmaking, experimenting extensively with color etching.
The end of the 1880s marked a turning point in Raffaëlli’s work, when he transitioned from depicting the downtrodden working-class of Paris’ suburbs, to creating mainly urban landscapes. Views of Paris would begin to dominate his work in the mid-1890s. The artist almost exclusively chose to represent well-known monuments, such as Notre Dame, the Invalides, the Sainte-Chapelle, or locations like the Place Saint-Michel and Champs-Elysées.
Raffaëlli began exhibiting his paintings at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français in 1870. With the support of the painter Edgar Degas, Raffaelli’s works were accepted at the fifth and sixth Impressionist exhibitions in 1880 and 1881, where he presented more than thirty-five works: paintings, watercolors, drawings, etchings, and drypoints. By 1891 he had also exhibited at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
In 1894-95, Raffaëlli planned to visit the United States for a week in order to attend the opening of an exhibition of his works at the American Art Association in New York. The week evolved into five months during which he traveled all over the country, giving lectures on art. He went back to New York at the end of 1899 to inaugurate an exhibition of his works at the Durand-Ruel Galleries. He was also a member of the jury for the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh. Raffaëlli died in 1924, having gained a high degree of success in both Europe and America.
Just as Raffaëlli was obsessed with documenting the character of his figural subjects, as outlined in his treaty on caractérisme, in the bustling scene of our painting, he is compelled by the spirit of Les Champs-Élysées. He produced countless street scenes while he lived in Paris and many of them, and possibly this one, were exhibited at the Paris Salon between 1870 and 1909. Each is painted with verve and finesse –a showcase for his confident brushwork and sophisticated palette, both of which are economical here and emphasized by his spare use of paint.
Raffaëlli’s studio habits were very much his own and the present work is on paper laid down on canvas, a support that he would have had prepared specifically for spontaneous works such as this. When working in oils, the smooth surface of paper allows for greater speed and flexibility in mark-making: brush strokes can be fast, applied wet or dry, as a wash or in thick impasto. In comparison to the drag of the weave of canvas, paper is supple and lithe and Raffaëlli takes full advantage of it. His wet and sinuous shadows, scumbled foliage with fully articulated dappled leaves, impasto figures in the foreground contrasted with the ghostly and gestural figures that fade into the distance, all demonstrate his willingness to experiment and virtuosity with his materials. Further, he boldly allows for bare paper to remain exposed throughout the whole of the picture, a strategy that unifies the composition and brings so many disparate elements into harmony.
Les Champs-Élysées was at one time owned by Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, affectionately referred to as “Big Alma”. A San Francisco socialite and philanthropist who stood six feet tall, Big Alma was a visible presence who was also considered a hugely influential art collector in America. In the early twentieth century, she spent a significant amount of time in Paris and amassed an impressive collection. She was a friend and patron to Auguste Rodin and bought many works directly from him to bring back to San Francisco where she would eventually found the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.
It was in Paris where Alma likely acquired this painting and it has been in her family’s collection until recently. There is no shortage of elements that may have attracted Alma de Bretteville Spreckels to this painting. It is extremely sophisticated in its organization, and while the proximity to Raffaëlli of Degas and other Impressionists is evident, the handling most closely resembles the later works of Camille Pissarro. The fashionable figures, brilliant coloration, attention to detail and the subtle narrative implied through a point of contact where the young girl faces the viewer all contribute to a fabulously dynamic composition.
This painting will be included in the online Raffaëlli catalogue critique being prepared by Galerie Brame & Lorenceau.