Thursday, 8 January 2009

French Anglo Saxon Venus: Lady Godiva by Jules-Joseph Lefebvre

Lady Godiva (1890) by Jules- Jacques Lefebvre. 19th Century print from the painting (original now lost)

There are surprisingly few paintings featuring Lady Godiva, given the primal appeal of a naked lady on a horse. Lord Leighton had a go in 1892 but his picture is a disappointment (at least as far as Venus Observations goes) as he chose to portray the moment when Godiva decided to do the ride so she is, annoyingly, clothed (nice braided hair, though).

Lady Godiva (1892) by Lord Leighton

George Frederick Watts' version is unlike any other, depicting what we take to be an emotionally drained Godiva being helped from her horse by her maids. Either that or she appears to have ridden herself into a massive orgasm (obviously not riding side-saddle). One can never be quite sure with Watts.

Lady Godiva (1880) by George Frederick Watts

Later, and rather surprisingly, Salvador Dali had a go at the subject a couple of times.

Lady Godiva (1976) by Salvador Dali

Lady Godiva (1982) by Slavador Dali

Lefebvre in his studio

One of the few other painters in the nineteenth century to produce a Lady Godiva picture was Jules-Joseph Lefebvre (1836-1911). His Lady Godiva pre-dates Collier's by seven years and she rides, more decorously, side saddle. His version of Dark Ages Coventry looks more like medieval Paris but then, although he got closer, Collier's version has her riding through late Norman architecture when her husband died nearly ten years before the Norman invasion. Real Anglo Saxon houses would have looked like this:

Lefebvre is not well known in the UK but we like this quote from a reviewer of his exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1881: “It is sufficient to just mention his name in order to immediately evoke the memory and the image of the thousand adorable creatures of which he is the father.... Jules Lefèbvre, better than anyone else caresses, with a brush both delicate and sure, the undulating contour of the feminine form.” Quite right M. Enault.

Chloe (1875)

Unlike the aristocratic Collier, Lefebvre was the son of a baker, but he sent Lefebvre fils to Paris to study under Léon Cogniet and at l'École des Beaux Arts. His first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1855 and then spent some years trying to win the coveted Prix de Rome; the aim of every young painter as the prize was five years of study in that city and a succesful reputation. He came second in 1859 and won in 1861.

Femme couchee (1868)

During his time in Rome he painted his fiorst female nude (in 1863). On his return to Paris his approach to painting was transformed and he started to work much more from life. His reclining nude exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1868 was much praised.

La Verite (1870)

In 1870 his painting, La Verite, became his first major success. She is lit in such a way that your eye is drawn to her voluptuous torso before following up her carefully shadowed arm until reaching the mirror (the symbol of truth) itself; caressing her with your eyes as Lefebvre himself has caressed her with his brush, to echo M. Enault. The model for this painting was a French actress, Sophie Croizette. This picture won him the Légion d'honneur.

Sophie Croizette. the model for La Verite

Mary Magdalen in the Grotto (1876)

Lefébvre sensibly started to concentrate on nudes and soon came to rival Bouguereau, although unlike the latter, who we will feature shortly, he used many different models. The author Alexandre Dumas was a big fan of his work and bought at least one nude from him.

l'Odalisque (1874)

In the 1870s he became a teacher at the Academie Julien where he insisted on absolute precision in life drawing from his students.

One of his most celebrated paintings was La Cigale (the grasshoper). Whilst this may look like a picture of a rather grumpy looking girl it was based on the Aesop fable The Grasshopper and the Ant where the grasshopper spends all summer dancing and singing whilst the ant prepares for the winter. When the winter arrives the grasshopper is cold, hungry and unprepared.

La Cigale (1872)

The girl is the grasshopper suddenly realising her folly. The picture was painted just after the Franco-Prussian War and was an allegorical attack on Napoleon III whose unpreparedness led to the disaster of the Paris Commune uprising in 1871.

Lefebvre painted two more versions of it as miniatures.

Jules-Jacques Lefèbvre died on February 24th 1911.


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