By Bernard Boutet de Monvel (3)

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 Maurice Boutet de Monvel - The crow wanting to imitate the eagle – Selected fables 1888


At this point, something major occurred in his life: a basilica devoted to Joan of Arc had just been built in Domrémy. The mother of the architect, a certain Sédille(40) , donated the sum of thirty thousand Francs to decorate the sanctuary, and this commission was offered to my father. Thirty thousand Francs was barely enough to pay for the canvasses, the stretchers and the colours; it involved six large panels measuring three metres high by seven long. The price was derisory but it was an opportunity for Maurice Boutet de Monvel to realise one of these vast decorative undertakings he'd always dreamt about. The programme was a splendid one and he didn't think twice about accepting the offer.

With what joy he set about his work! In Nemours, a sort of studio was built for him on the scale of these panels, beneath one that he occupied in Cours Balzac. As his first subject he chose Jeanne reconnaissant le roi à la cour de Chinon (Joan acknowledging the King at the court in Chinon) and he recaptured it by enlarging one of the pages from his album. Each personality was a portrait of some parent or friend, who all ended up posing in Nemours at a given point: all of us can be found there.
The work was carried out with the utmost precision in the style of the pre-Renaissance painters and the clothes, with their opulent designs, were embellished with gilded highlights. All this represented a considerable amount of work, which I gave a little bit of help to my father with, whilst he worked with the fervour of youth without a thought for the effort involved.

I believe his labour lasted two years because, due to the derisory sum for this decoration, Maurice Boutet de Monvel was very much obliged to devote some time to other, better paid work.

Here again, if I may be so bold as to give a few critiques of my own, the values and the colour could have played a better role so as to improve the overall effect, but whatever the case, the work was exceptionally successful and personal: it was exhibited at the Société Nationale(41) where it achieved the greatest success.

Maurice Boutet de Monvel's albums had always been much appreciated in the United States, where they were incredibly widespread, stretching right out to the Far West. We printed an English edition of his Joan of Arc, who had always been a very popular heroine among Anglo-Saxons. In fact, fairly frequently, Maurice Boutet de Monvel did illustrations for New York's Century Magazine, where Mr Johnson (42), Olivia Chambers' grandfather(43), was one of the directors. In short, the latter, along with a few other friends, advised Maurice Boutet de Monvel to do a round of exhibitions incorporating his work on Joan of Arc and various portraits in a few towns across the United States. At that time this appeared, to Maurice Boutet de Monvel in particular, to be an undertaking bordering on craziness.


There were already a lot of artists "fighting campaigns" in the land of the Dollar: Carolus Duran (44) , Chartran(45) , Raffaëlli(46) , all atrocious painters, but sensible businessmen, of whom it was said they were millionaires like the gold diggers of legend.


So extravagant was the project that it had appeal. Maurice Boutet de Monvel considered it and his friends took care of the organisation in the next world. One fine morning he found himself with his back against the wall: he had to make a decision and he opted to try his luck. Of course he didn't have any money with which to lay out capital and had to subsist until he was in a position to be able to harvest the uncertain fruit of his voyage. I recall that he borrowed the sum of ten thousand Francs from a cousin and childhood friend, who was his only wealthy relative.



 Maurice Boutet de Monvel - The rat and the oyster – Selected fables 1888


He ordered himself a dazzling wardrobe which included a luxurious cloak lined with the fur of some Russian rabbits...

Please believe me when I say we talked about Maurice Boutet de Monvel's journey to the next world! His sisters' eyes were a wide as carriage entrances. There was just one problem in all this excitement: my old grandfather Monvel was very ill and we knew it was terminal. However, the commitments in America were definite and Maurice Boutet de Monvel couldn't go back on them. It was heartbreaking for him that he wasn't able to close his father's eyes, and the old man died a few months after his son's arrival in New York.

I still recall how much the whole family looked forward to and commented on the traveller's news. His accounts were fabulous. He travelled on an ocean liner, which was a real palace (what would he have thought of the Normandie?...) He lived in New York in the fashionable Waldorf-Astoria hotel(47) was sixty storeys high... The old hotel still existed in the year of my first voyage (10). In fact I had lunch there and with every twist of the corridor, I imagined Maurice Boutet de Monvel. He didn't know a single word of English and had a kind of boy, like a dog for the blind, attached to him.
In addition to his fantastic new wardrobe, he'd taken with him, the large decorative panel of Chinon, the forty-eight original compositions from his album on Joan of Arc and around thirty watercolours, which I think were studies and portraits of children, which he was counting on to make his fortune.(48) was sixty storeys high... The old hotel still existed in the year of my first voyage(49). In fact I had lunch there and with every twist of the corridor, I imagined Maurice Boutet de Monvel. He didn't know a single word of English and had a kind of boy, like a dog for the blind, attached to him.
In addition to his fantastic new wardrobe, he'd taken with him, the large decorative panel of Chinon, the forty-eight original compositions from his album on Joan of Arc and around thirty watercolours, which I think were studies and portraits of children, which he was counting on to make his fortune.


 Maurice Boutet de Monvel - Catherine’s doll – Our children 1887

His exhibition was supposed to go from New York, to Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston and Philadelphia. In New York it took place at the Century Club. I saw the room again during my frequent trips to the club to eat out. He really had the most resounding success, both as an artist and a man. Everywhere he went he was the "man of the moment" and exceptionally popular. Coming from a fairly secluded life, he was certainly very sensitive to it.

The family were elated, his sisters stamped their feet impatiently, but my mother was already fearful that it wouldn't last. She was right unfortunately...

He had some sizeable commissions and his extreme conscientiousness as regards his work proved to be an obstacle in his ability to accept a lot of these. In Chicago, he was particularly celebrated and retained fond memories of it. In the provinces, we forget less quickly than in New York and, when I in turn went to Chicago, some twenty-eight years later, I still found old ladies who had been pretty and some of them greeted the son of the hero of their youth with genuine tears in their eyes.

He finally returned after six or seven months. This was an event in itself as my mother went to meet him in Le Havre. He was extremely wealthy or at least we assumed so. In any case, he immediately reimbursed his courageous relative and finally prepared for a spot of rest, before returning to fight a campaign the following autumn, as he'd committed to various portrait commissions.

Decidedly it was his fortune. He's suffered from a bad spell of flu from the deathly chill in Chicago but said that it was nothing. We later discovered that he'd been spitting blood. The doctor told him that it was a serious warning and that he ought to take very strict precautions. He had promised himself that he'd keep an eye on it in secret, not wanting to compromise the benefit of this new winter of work, and he headed off again.


 Maurice Boutet de Monvel - Marie’s parasol – Our children 1887

He enjoyed the same success but less excitement. I too experienced that... With the season over, he returned with his new spoils.

On his return, I can still see myself now, bounding up the three flights of stairs four by four as we were used to doing in our house on Rue de Condé. Arriving at the top I was overwhelmed to see him so out of breath that he nearly passed out. "Decidedly I can't take any more", he said overcome, in an air which really struck me...

Maurice Boutet de Monvel consulted Faisans, the famous lung specialist of the time. He found lesions in him which were so deep that, according to him, they must have been there some twenty years or so, without any outward signs. He had to get himself taken care of immediately with the utmost severity. Perhaps he could return to America in two or three years' time, but for now, he had to stop all work: plenty of nourishment, a chaise longue, forced inactivity and he had to give up his dear cigarettes, which seemed to him to be the cruellest thing of all.

Maurice Boutet de Monvel didn't realise the true extent of the disaster straightaway: he'd always been so active that a spell of forced rest, with savings behind him for the first time, wasn't something he minded and he thought he would return to a normal life the following year.

It was the springtime, the right season for his illness, which he didn't feel much of the effects of. He began with the chaise longue in Nemours, with his family all around him, and alas began to put on weight! He also gradually lost his slenderness...


 Maurice Boutet de Monvel - Germaine’s convalescence – Our children 1887

Maurice Boutet de Monvel had to give up the Domrémy decoration, which crucified him; it was too cruel a blow to abandon this magnificent work midway through, when it should have added so much to his glory. Not wishing to let his only finished panel fall into mediocre circles, he preferred to hang onto it himself. How did the old Copper King, Senator Clark(50), learn of my father's sorrow over this unfinished work? Doubtless via his daughter (51) to whom Maurice Boutet de Monvel must have written. Clark senior liked him a great deal and had asked him to do a portrait of his children or grandchildren. He commissioned him to do some scaled-down versions of the six panels which were to have hung in Domrémy. It was his last artistic pleasure as well as a precious material solace, as his meagre savings from America were running out.

It allowed him to return to spend his winters in Nemours, where he could work on these famous panels, which he had to deliver one by one, year by year, and he began this patient work, the only work he could now undertake.

He lived there alone, alone together with his mother-in-law (52), who had lived completely in isolation there since the death of her husband. Only meal times were really spent together, Maurice Boutet de Monvel having to live season-round with the windows wide open... Try to imagine this poor old man, without ever the smallest fire, sleeping virtually outdoors even in January, working every winter's day in his large ice-cold studio...


He was all wrapped up in shawls, sporting mittens and fur-lined shoes, and didn't complain... His final work was the illustration of the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, which my brother Roger(53) wrote for the United States. It was his last pleasure. He wanted to gather information on Assisi and, in his twilight years, finally got to know the divine Italy. He made this voyage with his dear sisters Juliette and Cécile. Jacques Blanche (54), who met them in Florence, was moved by these two old ladies enveloping their sick old brother with their attentiveness.

When Maurice Boutet de Monvel saw the mural splendours of the pre-Renaissance painters, it seemed that he fell into a sense of despondency: "If only I'd seen this before painting my panels!" he exclaimed, and for two days he remained sombre and silent. After that he remarked that in fact it was better that he'd painted using his own means, without resorting to any outside influence; and maybe he was right.

After six years, his panels for Clark were finished. I rediscovered them again later, on Clark's death, magnificently exhibited in a special room at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, to which they'd been bequeathed.

...His major decoration of "L'entrevue de Chinon" (The meeting in Chinon) was sold to the Chicago Art Institute, where I saw it again amidst much emotion. He'd painted a few small portraits with difficulty, and was finally worry free... It was then that the drama, which had been put off for so long, suddenly blew up: one morning, in the autumn of 1912, he felt like he had a cold, but a cold that he had no illusions about...


 Maurice Boutet de Monvel - The wooden sword – Our children 1887

It began as a kind of infectious pleurisy. He had to take to his bed straightaway and it just got worse from day to day. His family gathered around him in patient attentiveness. The poor soul languished for about ten days, the asphyxia taking hold, despite the oxygen bottles to hand. The last days were atrocious! His eyes closed, he no longer had the strength to speak and was just a miserable old suffering machine. Finally, one night, he had horrible hiccups and his suffering came to an end. He was sixty-two years of age (55) ...


I dearly loved and admired my father but, since the day I lost him, I have had a growing sense of remorse that I didn't show him enough... I'm afraid that he never knew how much I admired his immense talent and that above all leads me to despair...

Youth is stupid in its idiotic instinct to want to rebuild everything from scratch. In my vitality as a young man, which saw me hunt down new formulae go right back on it, had my father thought that I wasn't doing justice to the genius of his delicate, but far more powerful art, except in the vain violence of my first years as an artist? This fear has often haunted me in my nights of insomnia.



(40) The architect Paul Sédille (1836 - 1900), who also developed the Printemps stores. (↑)
(41) Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (French National Fine Arts Society) 1899 No.221 "Jeanne à Chinon" (Jean of Arc in Chinon). (↑)
(42) Robert U. Johnson (1853 - 1937), the poet, became in 1881, Associate Editor of Century Magazine, which he managed from 1909. (↑)
(43) Mrs Peter F. Chambers née Olivia D. Johnson. (↑)
(44) Charles Emile Auguste Durand known as Carolus-Duran (1837 - 1917). (↑)
(45) Théobald Chartran (1849 - 1907). (↑)
(46) Jean-François Raffaëlli (1850 - 1924) (↑)
(47) Bernard Boutet de Monvel refers to the former Waldorf and Astoria hotels here, which were combined in 1893 to form the Waldorf-Astoria, and were demolished in 1929 to construct the Empire State Building on the site. (↑)

(48) The current Waldorf-Astoria hotel at 301 Park Avenue, which was built in 1931 between 49th and 50th street, around fifteen blocks to the North of the former Waldorf-Astoria, comprises forty-seven floors in reality. (↑)
(49) Bernard Boutet de Monvel went to New York for the first time in October 1926.(↑)
(50) Senator William A. Clark (1839 - 1925) was an American politician and businessman who'd made his fortune in the mines, banking and the railway. (↑)
(51) Most probably the senator's elder daughter, Mrs Marius de Brabant née Mary J.Clark (1870 - 1939), with whom Bernard Boutet de Monvel still had a relationship in the thirties. (↑)
(52) Mrs Charles Lebaigue née Claire Tritignon de la Poterie, whose husband died in 1903. (↑)
(53) The Saint Francis of Assisi work, which Maurice Boutet de Monvel illustrated with 21 plate engravings and whose elder son, Roger Boutet de Monvel was the author, wasn't published with Plon, Nourrit & Co. until 1921. (↑)
(54) The painter Jacques-Emile Blanche (1861-1942) had a friendship with Maurice Boutet de Monvel (↑)
(55 )Maurice Boutet de Monvel passed away at his home in Paris, 16 rue de Sèvres, on 16 March 1913 at three in the morning. (↑)