This ever-popular subject matter offers a retreat into the past, and the chance both to celebrate and poke fun at a wide variety of male past-times and peccadilloes in historicizing styles. In each, the protagonists act out small moments of little consequence, dressed up in the frills and furbelows of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century fashions, or in many instances in the elaborate pomp and ceremony attached to ecclesiastical garb. This last theme, especially popular in predominantly Catholic countries – France, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Southern Germany, provided rich material for an audience increasingly sceptical of the probity of the church. In other scenes, musicians and gentlemen of letters are presented in opulent dress and magnificent surroundings of earlier centuries.
By so cloaking their protagonists, artists avoided the risk of pandering to the fashions of the day that would quickly become outdated. Instead, their compositions exude the timeless taste, elegance and luxury of yesteryear. To paraphrase Hook and Poltimore, in a century of increasing industrialisation it was a world of sedan chairs, not railways; of muslin and brocade, not coal mines; of refinement, not contemporary grossness. (P. Hook & M Poltimore, Popular 19th Century Painting, Woodbridge, 1987, p. 296). Today the viewer glimpses an extraordinary never-never world of splendour and excess through the lens of some of the most technically talented painters of the period.
The rehearsal by Jehan George Vibert (lot 361) is a typically wry depiction of the Catholic Church seen behind closed doors on an especially impressive scale. In it, a choir of eight monks are rehearsed by a cantankerous Monseigneur in his palatial surroundings. Enthroned on a richly brocaded armchair the prelate clutches his violin as he strains forward in his seat, using his bow to conduct. Accompanying the singers are a double-bass player and a young and earnest pianist, both attired in distinctive crimson robes – a particular ecclesiastical hue that became familiarly known as ‘Vibert red’. With mouths open-wide, and eyes fixed intently on their music, the choir seem to be literally singing for their lives. Woe betides the poor chorister who sings a wrong note or misses the beat.
Lot 361. Jehan Georges Vibert (French 1840-1902) The rehearsal
Andrea Landini was another master at exaggerating the pampered lives of clerics in his elaborately constructed and extraordinarily detailed work. In The Toast (lot 358) two robed prelates and their richly attired manservant in a luxuriously appointed salon stand up to raise a glass to celebrate their privilege. On a pristine lace tablecloth, a champagne bottle sits uncorked, while a second is cooling; a delicious dessert awaits on a silver stand next to an elaborate cornucopia of fruit. To the right is a carafe of wine. On the wall behind them between ornate pilasters hangs a tapestry of three nattering women in the style of Boucher, the master of pompous inconsequence. The setting is secular, the occasion in all likelihood trivial, as the male triumvirate mimic the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Ghost – the three men standing around what is clearly an altar of earthly delights.
Lot 358. Andrea Landini (Italian 1847-1912) The Toast
The two works by Francois Brunery in the sale are set in different times and places, one in 18th century France, the other in 17th century Holland. But both afforded Brunery the opportunity to exhibit his consummate skill with a paintbrush. In One glass too many (lot 359) three generations – son, father and grandfather – have withdrawn from the ladies after their meal to enjoy male conversation and indulge in coffee and liqueurs. Mellow with drink, the grandson enjoys the moment his grandfather tremulously fills his glass, watched anxiously by his father. Dressed in highly elaborate eighteenth-century Rococo garb, including satin breeches, fabulously decorated tailcoats and richly embroidered waistcoats, the desire not to spill a single drop of the precious liquid contrasts with the three men’s extraordinarily lavish attire and their sumptuous surroundings.
Lot 359. Francois Brunery (Italian 1849-1926) One glass too many or A delicate operation
The 17th century Dutch interior in which Brunery’s lute playing ‘cavaliers’ find themselves in A Difficult Passage (lot 360) align the artist with the Dutch Golden Age and such august names from the past from Gerard ter Borsh and Frans van Mieris to Frans Hals. In the process, the artist serves up a feast of colours, textures, and designs. Clad in billowing velvet knickerbockers, ornately brocaded doublet and sporting the most intricate lace ruffs, the men’s lush and highly ornamented costumes, together with the hand-woven deep pile oriental carpet that covers the table, and the hard glazed surfaces of the adjacent drinking vessels allowed Brunery the opportunity to show off the full range of his painterly virtuosity.
Lot 360. Francois Brunery (Italian 1849-1926) A challenging passage
At the time, the painter Alfred Stevens brushed off the popularity of this highly ornamented genre with the words: ‘The public are attracted to costume subjects in the same way they fall in love with the fancy dress of a masked ball’. But in truth the extraordinary detail and veracity of the works reflect how the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries assumed an almost mythical significance in the 19th century, such works being the ‘period dramas’ of their day. Collectors of the genre were enchanted by the depiction of former golden ages of culture and etiquette that represented values of a past, they considered, now lost. Other paintings of cardinals and gentlemen of learning and leisure from the same collection include two by Bernard-Louis Borione (lots 362 & 363) and four by Alois and Greta Kalla Priechenfried (lots 364-367).
For more information on any of the lots mentioned above, get in touch with the Head of Paintings & Fine Art, Adrian Biddell.
Our 19th & 20th Century Paintings and Works on Paper, including Portrait Miniatures sale will take place on Tuesday 30 March at 2pm. Click here to view the catalogue.