Saturday, 14 March 2009

French Venus: September Morn by Paul Émile Chabas

Matinee Septembre (1912) by Paul Émile Chabas

Paul Émile Chabas was born on March 7, 1869 in Nantes and had trained under William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Tony Robert-Fleury. He first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1890 and was awarded a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1900. Although he painted portraits he was best known for his pictures of young girls bathing in lakes and pools.

The Bathers (1910)

Chabas took three years, working during the summers, to finish his most famous painting of a young girl posing in what look like chilly waters. The setting was Lake Annecy in the mountains of Savoie.

Lake Annecy today

He finished the painting one morning in September 1912, hence the name. Who the model for the painting was has never been clear. In one version the figure is said to have been modelled on two girls. A local peasant girl provided the body whilst the head belonged to a young American girl Julie Philipps who Chabas had sketched whilst she sat in a Paris cafe. However, Chabas always kept the identity of the model secret until just before he died when rumours were circulating that his model was destitute. He said "She is now 41, married to a rich French industrialist, and the mother of three lovely children. She is no longer so slender as she was 25 years ago."

Suzanne Delve

After Chabas’ death, however, a Hearst reporter allegedly found the model, who was then a middle-aged divorced (and childless) Parisian named Suzanne Delve. She claimed that she posed for Chabas in his Parisian studio (only the background was painted on location) at the age of fifteen. Both her mother and Chabas’ wife were also present at the sitting. She described how nervous she was and how Mme Chabas had played the piano to calm her nerves. She assumed the pose naturally, rather than under direction, and Chabas asked her to hold it.

Whatever the truth, the painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1912 where it won the Medaille d’Honneur to critical acclaim. What happened next, however, was completely unprecedented and led to the picture playing a significant role in an early American censorship battle.

In those days popular paintings were often reproduced as prints. In March 1913 one of these reproductions was being displayed in the window of Fred Jackson’s Art Store in Chicago. A passing policeman saw it, decided it was obscene, and ordered Jackson to remove the picture from his window. This he did but soon put it back. Spotting this the police returned, bought a copy of the picture and presented it to the Mayor, Carter Harrison Jr. Harrison was a reformer and in 1911 had established the Chicago Vice Commission. The brothel districts were so notorious at this time that printed maps were provided to tourists so that they could work their way from establishment to establishment.

Mayor Harrison and his wife in 1913

Mayor Harrison agreed that the picture violated the municipal code which banned the exhibit of “any lewd picture or other thing whatever of an immoral or scandalous nature.” They prosecuted Jackson, much to the outrage of the local artistic community. Despite testimony from local worthies that the picture was immoral and shouldn’t be viewed by children under fourteen the jury, after only thirty minutes deliberation, unanimously acquitted Jackson who immediately presented each juror with a copy of the painting which they all gratefully received. This decision led to numerous shops displaying the picture so that the city had to specifically forbid the display of “nude pictures in any window, except at art or educational exhibitions.” Needless to say this just increased interest in the painting. The city appealed but in May 1914 the First District Appelate Court ruled that the picture was not indecent although they made cutting comments regarding its exploitation.

Only two months after the initial Chicago controversy, in May 1913, a similar furore took place in New York. Tipped off, it is said, by a school teacher Anthony Comstock, the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice entered the Braun & Co art dealers’ showroom where September Morn was on display in the window. He ordered the removal of the picture. James Kelly the salesman on duty informed Comstock that the picture was “the famous September Morning”. Kelly allegedly replied that “There’s too little morning and too much maid.” Kelly’s boss then later ordered the picture back in the window where it remained for five days whilst the gallery expected the return of Comstock any day. In the end Braun & Co took the picture down themselves as the crowds it was drawing were interfering with normal customers. The manager of the gallery wrote an incensed letter to the New York Times and discussion raged about the picture all over America.

In December 1914 the students of a college in Ohio publicly burnt copies of the picture along with other erotic literature and other questionable (by their standards) pictures.

Ann Pennington

All of this just generated huge publicity for the picture. Millions of prints (some estimate as many as seven million) were sold and it was reproduced on postcards, bottle openers, cigar bands, umbrellas, watch fobs, chocolate boxes and many others. A song was written about it, there was a recreation of it in the Ziegfield Follies (by the petite 4’10”dancer Ann Pennington) and it was even the subject of a Broadway musical. It is generally believed to have been the first calendar nude.

Chabas himself never made any money from all these reproductions although he did sell the original to a Russian collector, Leon Mantacheff, for $10,000. After the Russian Revolution it reappeared in the Gulbenkian collection and was bought by Philadelphia collector William Coxe Wright. He donated it to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where it still hangs, in 1957 because the Philadelphia Museum of Art had turned the picture down because it had “no significance”.

Paul Chabas was the president of the Société des Artistes Français from 1925 to 1935 and was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 1928. He died in Paris on May 10th 1937 at the age of 68.

Many credit the controversies surrounding the picture as having had a positive effect on the censorship of art in the United States. Twenty-one years after Chabas’ death September Morn would be the subject of another indecency trial, oddly also with a Chicago connection. But that is another entry altogether.

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