Jules Bastien-Lepage: Flower Seller in London
In a photograph of Jules Bastien-Lepage’s studio on rue Legendre in the 17th arrondissement in Paris, produced after his death in 1884, several of the artist’s works remain on display, including La Chanson du printemps (circa 1873), a portrait of his brother Émile Bastien-Lepage (1879); Fleur du chemin or La Petite bergère (1882) and the Portrait of Mme Juliette Drouet (1883) and the present work, Marchande de fleurs à Londres. Painted in 1882, the fact that the painting was found in the artist’s studio after his death clearly establishes its pedigree and its significance for the artist.
What is unusual about this Marchande de fleurs is that she is not French but English, and one of only two working-class subjects that Bastien-Lepage completed in London, the other being Le petit cireur de bottes (1882). Bastien-Lepage first visited London in 1879 when two of his portraits were included in the Royal Academy exhibition of that year. He used this opportunity to find prospective clients for portraits, returning to paint a portrait of the Prince of Wales (Portrait du Prince de Galles, 1879), and again, for the last time, in 1882.
Marchande de fleurs and Le petit cireur de bottes were painted in the studio of Dorothy Tennant (later known as Lady Stanley after her marriage to the explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, in 1890) herself an artist who had been very impressed by the young Bastien-Lepage as he made his impact on the London art scene. She recalled her impressions of the artist and of his two English subjects in an article published in 1897 in the London Art Journal, noting that the artist was so interested in the city “We undertook… to show him London – not the sights… but… those bits of London most characteristic or more picturesque.” (Stanley, p. 53) After painting the shoeblack in Le petit cireur de bottes, Bastien-Lepage decided, together with Tennant, that a flower girl would be an appropriate English subject. His model was found near Charing Cross and according to Tennant was “a tall, graceful girl, with sloping shoulders, wrapped in a thin weather-stained shawl, her hair tangled over the eyes, and drawn back in a knot at the back” (Stanley, p. 53). Tennant reproached him for not putting enough sentiment into the picture, to which he responded “I don’t put literature into the painting, like you English; I am satisfied to represent nature just as I see her” (Stanley, p. 56). While the flower girl is situated confrontationally in the foreground, as if ready to speak to an approaching client, Bastien-Lepage added well-dressed figures farther away in the upper left, visually establishing the stratification of the social classes.
Many nineteenth century art critics, and their twentieth century followers, have tried to find correspondences between Bastien-Lepage’s style or manner of painting and his peers. Émile Zola described him as “le petit-fils de Courbet et de Millet." His flower girl in the present work has been compared with Édouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-82), exhibited at the Salon of 1882, and the tilt of the sitters' heads, black chokers and indifferent yet enticing expressions certainly align. While Manet is mainly concerned with rendering the psychological state of his sitter, Bastien-Lepage is more interested in conveying the narrative of his scene and its implications for the principal character. [Sotheby’s]