Medium: Oil On Canvas
Size: 75 x 81 cm
Signed: and dated: J.F. Rafaelli, New York, '99
A talented artist who was at once a portraitist, landscapist, genre painter, engraver, lithographer and sculptor, Raffaëlli enjoyed a distinguished career, but early on rejected the academic world of Gérome (in whose studio he remained for three months in 1871), preferring the more radical circle of the impressionists. His grandfather, from a minor noble family connected to the Papacy, who owned vineyards at Carmignano, near Florence, had come to Lyon to marry a young noblewoman. There they had had their only son, Pierre, who established a successful silk business that he moved to Paris, where Jean-François was born in 1850. As the young son of a prosperous family Jean-François Raffaëlli enjoyed what he later described as an idyllic childhood, but he did not embrace the commercial life that his father had destined him for. His first love was music, and possessed of a fine voice: at seventeen he began to earn his living as a bass, singing at marriages and funerals. In his spare time he visited museums and decided to apprentice himself as a painter.
At first self-taught, but of obvious talent, Raffaëlli presented a landscape at the Salon of 1870, which to his delight was accepted by the Jury. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war led him to volunteer and he served in two engagements at Bourget and Champigny. He left the army a political radical, and organised a group of musicians to support the Commune, but with its suppression returned to his career as a painter. In 1873 he met and lived with a young Jewish woman, Rachel Heran, who shared his progressive views (they did not marry until 1879, two years after the birth of their daughter, Germaine); they set off for a lengthy tour of Italy. Raffaëlli first attempted to follow the mode for costume drama established by Meissonnier, and in 1873 offered to the Salon a trite love scene set in a wood, the two figures wearing 17th century costume. The following year he sent an “Ambush” to the Salon, a bold composition of two armed men in 17th century costume again, but eschewed the high finish and polish that was so beloved of collectors of these works. In 1875 he had his first big success, selling a painting he had done in Naples (An Excursion), for the considerable sum of 5000 francs.
The historical genre did not suit his painting style, nor did he find it intellectually satisfying. In the second half of the 1870s he turned to chronicling the life of the least fortunate – his portrayals of workers done over the next decade are almost unique in French painting in their uncompromising images of simple peasants, rag and bone men (chiffonniers), absinthe drinkers, and scenes of Bohemian life. His 1877 Salon submission, the extraordinary Family of Jean le Boiteux, is a masterpiece of social realism, which attracted the attention of Duranty, the leading proponent of the new painting, later called Impressionism. Indeed, in 1877 he made the acquaintance of Degas, Forain and Zandomeneghi (at the brasserie of the Nouvelle Athènes, place Pigalle) and, thanks to the influence of Degas, was invited to exhibit at the 5th Impressionist exhibition, of 1880 (to which he sent thirty-four paintings, pastels and drawings), along with Felix and Marie Braquemond, Caillebotte, Mary Cassat, Degas, Forain, Gauguin, Pissarro and Berthe Morisot. The critics Duranty, Huysmans, Doucet and Jules Claretie all praised his work and he showed another thirty-three works in 1881, among which Les Declasses (the Downgraded- a portrayal of two working men seated at an outside table) that earned him the comment from the Figaro critic, Albert Woolff (who lent two Raffaëlli paintings from his own collection to the show) that what Millet did for the humble peasant, “Raffaëlli begins to do for the modest people of Paris. He shows them as they are, more often than not stupefied by life’s hardships.” Huysmans compared Raffaëlli to the Le Nain brothers, writing that the artist had “taken up and completed (their) work”; indeed, in their stoic acceptance, his figures offer few clues to whatever story they might tell.
Caillebotte and Pissarro opposed him being re-invited to exhibit with the Impressionists, and Raffaëlli himself recognised that he had different technical and stylistic priorities. In 1885 he was taken up by Durand-Ruel, however, and the following year exhibited at the International organised by Georges Petit alongside Monet and Renoir. The art establishment now accepted Raffaëlli as a leading painter; the Luxembourg acquired his Family of Jean le Boiteux (the dramatic Portrait of Clemenceau in the Cirque Fernando of 1883 was purchased in 1906), but this acceptance coincided with a change of subject and move away from the large figural paintings and social realism towards more broadly painted Parisian street scenes. In 1888 Raffaëlli painted his splendid portrait of the influential critic and collector Edmond de Goncourt, an effete dandy standing in his grand salon, but for the intensity of his expression almost overpowered by the possessions with which he is surrounded. Once he entered the Goupil stable of artists, in 1890, the figures begin to diminish and the city of Paris itself plays a larger role henceforth in his compositions – the powerful Vieux Convalescents of 1892 is among the last of his large scale social realist subjects. In the last two decades of his life he continued to produce Parisian street scenes, the occasional landscape and portraits; while he continued to find a following among those seeking to memorialize their visit to Paris, they also demonstrate that he had chosen to ignore the extraordinary changes that had taken place in the avant-garde of contemporary painting, a movement with which he was at one time in the vanguard.