By Bernard Boutet de Monvel (2)

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 Maurice Boutet de Monvel - Reading the letter - Saint Nicholas circa 1887


Throughout my childhood I saw Maurice Boutet de Monvel bent under the lamp during all his long evenings working on these small masterpieces, which were to bring in the bacon the following day. Immortality must have been his subconscious reward...

In fact, all in all, I do not believe in the slightest that this Histoire de France (22) adventure was the turning point in his career. At the outside it helped him decide on his collaboration with Saint Nicolas.

Maurice Boutet de Monvel had such a unique understanding of childhood that such an opportunity to devote himself to it was bound to come up one day. This talent was positively marvellous: throughout centuries of Art nobody appreciated the innocent character of children with such touching simplicity and such sharpness. The sentiment of these works is as touching as the execution is perfect, which is what makes him an outstanding artist.

There are portraits he has done of children which are imperishable, such as that of the little Porel (23), that of Roger and I in Cher valley. I have graphite studies for a lot of these portraits, which are not in any way inferior to the finest paintings. These works are like that of no one else, they are not an example of anything else, they are his and his alone.

I believe that it is was around the start of his Saint Nicolas work, that he produced the masterpiece of masterpieces, to my mind, with his two albums: the Chansons et rondes (Songs and dances)(24) and Les Chansons de France(25) .

Look at these small books over and over with reverence. Personally, after so many years, I cannot open them without tears welling up in my eyes. Nobody has ever produced anything more serenely pure and they are larger in their smallness than the vastest paintings. Nothing is more essentially French either.
The day where Maurice Boutet de Monvel created these little marvels with so much ease, was illuminated by one of those brilliant lights which are bordering on the miraculous and which give these humble books a similar look to the most moving perfections of a Fra Angelico.


The penned sketches of these compositions are a resounding miracle: it is drawn first go, without hesitations, without regrets, as if guided by a mysterious force. Everything about this work is perfection; there wouldn't be a rosebush leaf out of place and the smallest finger of these miniscule characters could stand up to being enlarged to their natural proportions without damage. The sentiment is touching, the composition and the execution perfect, the colour exquisite.
It is art in motion.

All that Maurice Boutet de Monvel created meant that I shall be forever proud to bear his name, and though he's only created masterpieces since then, to my mind, they were never to such a degree of inspired perfection it would seem to me.


 Maurice Boutet de Monvel - In the Luxembourg Gardens – Puerile and honest civility 1887

Nos enfants (Our children)(26), with a text that Anatole France created to accompany the paintings and which was then published, is an adorable book, but the arrangement of these delightful paintings was not as fortunate. There is no longer the same perfection in this ensemble.

The same is true for the charming Civilité puérile et honnête (Puerile and decent civility)(27) and later for the Fables de la Fontaine(28) (La Fontaine's Fables), whose illustrations are enchanting. There was nobody better than Maurice Boutet de Monvel to bring to life La Fontaine's characters and animals with so much tact and sensibility.

One of his most pristine successes is the illustration of the charming book by the unknown Lucien BIART, entitled Quand j'étais petit (When I was young)(29). The illustrations in the text here are the best he's done. Go through this book over and over again, re-read it and read it to your children; the whole thing is touching.

The illustration of Xavière(30), a fairly tedious novel by the fairly tedious Ferdinand Fabre, involved an exhausting amount of effort from Maurice Boutet de Monvel. He took the same degree of care with it as he would a large painting. Everything in it is scrupulously done to scale. I know something about it having posed for whole days, and pretty often with a lack of goodwill, the memory of which makes me very ashamed. Certain pages, like La mort de Xavière (The death of Xavière) are emotionally intense. Yet, as perfect as this work is, rather than this great effort I still prefer the simple character of a small Saint Nicolas painting, composed and created with so much attention to detail in a single evening. This is even more of the pure Maurice Boutet de Monvel.


He also did a delightful illustration of La farce de maître Pathelin (The Farce of Master Pierre Pathelin)(31).


 Maurice Boutet de Monvel - The underhand host – Puerile and honest civility 1887


Around the time when he published his albums of songs, he painted a huge and highly unexpected painting alongside his incredibly delicate, serene illustrations, and the duality of his career remains a disconcerting factor. Indeed, for a long time he held onto the ambition of creating very large classical paintings in the style of the Ancients, until such time as his truly personal temperament definitively gained the upper hand. Indeed this large work was the natural outcome of all his research into romantic compositions... as well as the brilliant affirmation of his convictions, despite virtually universal disapproval.

This large satirical painting measures about four by three metres and is entitled l'Apothéose de la canaille (The Apotheosis of the rabble)(32). It depicts the riffraff cheering Robert Macaire and his stooge Bertrand, who crown a drunkard who is sprawled on the throne of the monarchy assassinated beneath his feet.
In these early years of the French Third Republic where all the elite were overcome with love for this form of government, this act of faith is highly courageous and, by sending it to the Show, Maurice Boutet de Monvel put himself out of the equation for benefits and official honours for ever. In the modest situation in which he found himself, this disinterest was not without merit.
The painting, taken down under minister's order on the eve of the opening due to it being seditious, was then exhibited at Le Figaro(33), a reactionary paper of the day, which caused an almighty scandal and got Maurice Boutet de Monvel involved in some of the most furious attacks from the left-wing press. This composition ought to have been a very fine painting. It had all the necessary elements; it was full of life, movement and passion. Maurice Boutet de Monvel made two excellent sketches of it in black and white. The colour unfortunately compromised them somewhat: there should have been greater emphasis placed on the vast contrasts between light and shade in order to give this composition the dramatic character it needed. Maurice Boutet de Monvel didn't reflect on that unfortunately and it's appalling to see something coming so close to being a masterpiece without actually being achieved.



 Maurice Boutet de Monvel - The visit - Puerile and honest civility 1887


His last classical painting was to be Jeunesse de Diane (Diane's Youth) which he worked on for years and which he was to begin again before deciding to exhibit it. He wanted to paint an extremely clear and bright figure on a background of verdure. In it was a vague impressionist influence and the result doesn't appear to me to have been favourable. I have it against the wall in the Aulnoy studio. I really must resign myself to destroying this painting as well before I pass away.
Throughout this period, Maurice Boutet de Monvel completely gave up painting portraits of men, though he completed some excellent portraits of women, including that of the young blond lady in a pink blouse... that of Mrs Alexandre André and above all a major figure in the form of a certain Baroness Deslandes(34), the best of them all, which I very much regret not having been able to buy at an auction due to not receiving notice of it.

The impressionist movement found a fairly hostile Maurice Boutet de Monvel. Whilst recognising the quality of its luminosity, the slack technique involved simply irked him and Renoir's fluffy forms repulsed him.

What I've never understood though was his irreconcilable antipathy towards Manet. "His Olympia is wooden" he commented. I struggle to explain his sentiment because in this Olympia there are some decorative simplifications which would seem to correspond so well with his temperament. The same is true for Gaugin, whose purely decorative art should have enchanted him. However, on careful reflection eclectism cannot only be the lot of dilettantes and a dilettante will never be a true creator. The latter can only adopt a route wearing blinkers to his selective and often blind temperament.



 Maurice Boutet de Monvel - The battle - Puerile and honest civility 1887


On the other hand, Maurice Boutet de Monvel had unbounded admiration for Puvis de Chavannes and a reverence for Degas, to whose house he took my cousin Jacques Brissaud(35) and I, once we'd begun to paint.


Now it remains for me to speak about the final concerted effort in the career of Maurice Boutet de Monvel, his work on Joan of Arc, whose generous nature brought about a real cult. He put heart and soul into it and it may be considered that, for him, this was his magnificent swansong.

He devoted over two years to the album we are familiar with and which wasn't accomplished with the miraculous ease of the albums of songs, far from it. The task was certainly far more arduous. Indeed I saw him really struggling with these moving compositions. I particularly recall a stay in Vineuil with the Rousselets (36) where he'd lost all hope of success. Nearly all the characters were posed by my brother Roger and I: you can certainly find us on a number of sketches. I still recall myself with him and the two Brissauds (37) posing as the turbulent group in the capture of Joan of Arc; it was very uncomfortable.
Ultimately Maurice Boutet de Monvel was largely rewarded for his efforts. His small Joan of Arc figure, which is so serious and so pure, is certainly the most touching interpretation ever designed of her, aside from the noble statue by Paul Dubois.

We find the complete Maurice Boutet de Monvel in the ingenuity, the emotion and the choice of compositions. There are some truly admirable pages in it, particularly those depicting the battles, where the fieriness of the charges of the cavalry in its early years is brought back to life. In the Battle of Patay, he managed a final creation along his favourite old theme. I've never seen such a furious and dramatic kerfuffle from any painter in history, as famous as he or she may be. If colour had played a more striking role, Maurice Boutet de Monvel would have no cause to be jealous of Paolo Uccello. Unfortunately, aside from a few compositions such as dusk in Orléans, the judgement in the half-light and the capture of Joan of Arc with its sombre foreground, with little regard for the virtually insipid colour, it would seem that colouring doesn't do much for the design. As such I prefer the whole set of works represented by the first sketches which are simply line drawings... In this way they seem to me to be almost more colourful than the compositions in colour.

 Maurice Boutet de Monvel - The Auriol clown – When I was young 1886Another thing which distresses me in these admirable pages is the poor layout of the time, with the text failing to fit nicely into the sections reserved for this purpose on the page, in its varying forms, with no apparent rhyme or reason, which so often distorts these perfect compositions. It's already a notable drawback in Nos enfants (Our children). As much as the music and the text are kept in the centre of the pages and permanently contribute to a harmonious decorative ensemble in Les chansons (The songs), these rectangles or squares laid out haphazardly damage the arrangement of the pages.


In fact this is just a detail about the execution and it doesn't affect the sense of inspiration you get from the work, which is still the key issue here. In fact, this album is really the only work which has dared to tackle this overwhelming subject and has been particularly successfully dealt with. Have you ever paid close attention to the text? Maurice Boutet de Monvel was the person behind this and he wrote with marvellous simplicity. It's the preface above all that still moves me deeply when I go through it devoutly. Give it a second read: it's the most moving, patriotic act of faith that I've ever written and I reflected on its advice many times when I headed off to war (38). It concludes like this: "to conquer you need to have confidence in victory, remember that, my children, when the homeland needs all your courage."...

These finished compositions were exhibited in the Cercle l'Epatant(39). I recall the day of the opening: my mother had made herself a special outfit which was dazzling and I can still picture it with its fur-lined cloak; my father was extremely chic, as always.




(22) Ref. Maurice Boutet de Monvel by Bernard Boutet de Monvel Part 1. (↑)
(23) Germaine Porel, daughter of the comedian Réjane (1856 - 1920) and herself a comedian, who Maurice Boutet de Monvel painted in around 1890, whilst she was still a little girl. It is a striking portrait in watercolours showing her in a Renaissance costume. (↑)
(24)Vieilles chansons et danses pour les petits enfants (Old songs and dances for small children), E. Plon publication, Nourrit & Co. 1883 (↑)
(25) Chansons de France pour les petits Français (French songs for French children), E. Plon Edition, Nourrit & Co. 1884 (↑)
(26)Anatole France Nos enfants, scènes de la ville et des champs (Our children, scenes from the town and the fields) Hachette & Co. Edition 1887 (↑)
(27) Maurice Boutet de Monvel La civilité puérile et honnête racontée par l'Oncle Eugène (Puerile and decent civility told by Uncle Eugène) E. Plon Edition, Nourrit & Co. 1887. Maurice Boutet de Monvel is the author of the drawings and the text. (↑)
(28) Selected Jean de la Fontaine Fables for children E. Plon Edition, Nourrit & Co. 1888. (↑)
(29) Lucien Briard Quand j'étais petit (When I was young) E. Plon Edition, Nourrit & Co. 1886. (↑)
(30) Ferdinand Fabre Xavière, Bussod Edition, Valadon & Co. 1890 (↑)
(31) Georges Gassies des Brulies La farce de maître Pathelin (The Farce of Master Pierre Pathelin) Ch. Delagrave Edition 1887 (↑)
(32) Today the painting is kept at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Orléans, where it is one of the major works. (↑)
(33) The Apotheosis of the Rabble or Robert Macaire's triumph, was subjected to the show's jury in 1885, was number 1 and earned a place in the gallery. Edmond Turquet (1836 - 1914), the then Under-Secretary at Les Beaux-Arts, visited the exhibition the day before it was opened to the public and had it taken down due its potential for disturbing public order. George Petit, the famous dealer, then suggested that Maurice Boutet de Monvel exhibit the painting in his gallery in Rue de Sèze where he was organising an exhibition, but Léon Bonnat (1833 - 1922), who was among the exhibitors, formally opposed it. The painting was then withdrawn by Maurice Boutet de Monvel, who finally exhibited it in the premises of Le Figaro. (↑)
(34) Madeleine Annette Edmée Angélique Vivier-Deslandes (1866 - 1929), daughter of Auguste-Emile, Baron Vivier-Deslandes. Author of works signed "Ossit", she was a society character close to symbolist circles, who compared her "to the perfume of white lilac". She had her portrait painted by Edward Burne-Jones in 1896, then by Maurice Boutet de Monvel during the same period. (↑)
(35) Together Bernard Boutet de Monvel and his first cousin Jacques Brissaud (1880 - 1960) were to take lessons from the painter Luc-Olivier Merson and the sculptor Jean Dampt. They began to paint in 1898, during the summer holiday they spent together in the High Alps and Cazelot, in the Lower Pyrenees. (↑)
(36) Photographer Louis Rousselet (1845 - 1929), who was a cousin of Maurice Boutet de Monvel's wife, had a house from the romantic period in Bourré, Touraine, which was called "Vineuil", where the Boutet de Monvels regularly came for a holiday. A large part of the Nos enfants (Our children) paintings can be found in this house or in its garden. (↑)
(37) His first cousins, Jacques Brissaud (ref note 21) and the brother of the latter, Pierre Brissaud (1885 - 1964), who was to become a famous illustrator. (↑)
(38) Bernard Boutet de Monvel evokes the 1914-1918 war, for which he was called up as a reservist in August 1914, and from which he returned in April 1919 with the Légion d'honneur medal and was nominated for the order of the army six times. (↑)
(39) The artistic Cercle de l'Union, commonly known as L'Épatant, was founded in 1887, from the fusion of the Cercle des Champs-Elysées with the Cercle des Mirlitons. (↑)