Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 38 x 24 cm
Signed: on the single Bar le Duc painting at centre- right: Alex Séon
Private collection, Paris
Hôtel de Ville de Paris, 1891
A French Symbolist artist, Alexandre Séon studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Lyon and then in Paris, where he was a favourite pupil of Puvis de Chavannes. So impressed was the master than he employed Séon as his primary assistant and the two later collaborated extensively. Séon also became closely associated with Joséphin Péladan and his Salon de la Rose-Croix, and even designed the frontispiece for Péladan’s 1891 novel l’Androgyne. The ‘Mystic Order of the Rose + Cross’ was ostensibly a revived medieval cult, in the 1890s concerned with the roles of spirituality and idealism in what was contemporary art. As a critic, Péladan had been vocal in critiquing the dominant trends in French art, whether styles promoted by the academy or the Impressionists. The result was his organisation of a series of six exhibits of Symbolist artists and associated French avant-garde painters, writers, and musicians – the Salon de la Rose + Croix – which was enormously popular with the press and public.
Séon no doubt had an ambition to produce large public decorations; his mentor Puvis de Chavannes had done so with overwhelming success and to great acclaim. Séon too received commissions, one to decorate the main hall of the Hôtel de Ville of Courbevoie, but equally failed to win the competition to decorate the interior of the Mairie de Montreuil (several of Séon’s studies for which are today in the collection of the Petit Palais, Paris.)
The six elegant demi-lune canvases here were Séon’s submission to a competition to decorate the magnificent central dining hall in Paris’s grand Hôtel de Ville. As early as January, 1884, the government planned this elaborate program of painting and sculpture to focus on allegorical figures and scenes relating to gastronomy. The subject specifically was to be the cultivation, hunting and fishing it required. The competition became a drawn-out affair and underwent various vicissitudes (only a handful of the promised sculptures were ever submitted – one by Henri Chapu). In 1893 Georges-Bertrand was finally contracted to paint the ceiling, and crescents above the doors for which we see Séon’s proposals here.
It was only during the first stage of competition, in 1891, that Séon participated, attested to by two letters: the first, preserved in the library in Nîmes, is from Joséphin Péladan, addressed to the president of the jury for the competition; it recommends Séon’s six ‘half-moons where ancients hunt and fish’. In another letter Séon describes his own paintings, at that moment exhibited in the Town Hall by those of other contestants, to his friend Antoine de La Rochefoucauld.
Each of the six here are named with a French town and bear its crest. Bar le Duc represents a man in ancient robes holding a fishing net, as does the representation of Nantes. Mezieres shows a young man hunting with a spear and Gueret a man with a staff. A young woman drawing a bow decorates the representation of Versailles and Annecy, is a bare breasted woman with a fishing line full of her silvery catch.