"Un Bouquet de Fleurs" circa 1925
"Un Bouquet de Fleurs" circa 1925
Oil on board
Signed lower left
Sight Size: 19.88 x 13.11 in. (50.5 x 33.3 cm.)
Framed: TBD xx X xx in. (xx.xx X xx.xx cm.)
Provenance: Waterhouse and Dodd, according to label attached on the reverse
Elisee Maclet (1881-1962) was a French artist whose distinctive post-Impressionist painting style earned him an appreciable following in early twentieth century Paris as well as serious attention from the international art world, with particular interest accorded to his colorful street scenes of Paris’ historic Montmartre district.
Maclet (whose birth name was Jules-Emile Elisee Maclet) was born on April 12, 1881, in Lyons-en-Santerre in the Picardy region of northern France, the son of a laundress and a gardener. From an early age he worked as an assistant to his father, who served as sexton for the parish church, where Elisee was a choirboy. The parish priest, Pere Delval, was a skilled amateur painter who took note of Elisee’s inherent talent at sketching. Eventually, Father Delval began to take Elisee with him on Sunday afternoon excursions to the countryside, instructing him on the fundamentals of painting. One Sunday afternoon in April 1892, when Elisee was eleven years old, the prominent French painter Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) — considered by many to be the leading muralist of late nineteenth century France — happened upon Father Delval and Elisee painting along the banks of the River Somme. As referenced in the catalogue to the Vestart Gallery’s Maclet exhibition in New York City in March 1969, Puvis de Chavannes, upon examining Elisee’s depictions of the local flora, reputedly asked him, “Why do you not paint the landscape?" “Because, M’sieur,” the child answered. “I am a gardener, and so I prefer to paint flowers.” Immediately sensing the precocious talent underlying the young artist’s brushwork, de Chavannes sought out Elisee’s father and asked if he would allow Elisee to become his pupil. “My son is a gardener, and will remain a gardener,” was the reply. However, following his mother’s death in 1906, Elisee departed home for Paris, determined to become an artist.
Settling in Paris’ picturesque, bohemian neighborhood of Montmartre — a haven for artists and writers during the “Belle Epoque” period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — Maclet initially found employment varnishing iron bedsteads before finding work designing and decorating the stage and floats for the evening shows at the legendary Moulin Rouge cabaret, where his background in floral arrangements proved an asset. (He even served as a substitute partner for the popular dancer Bouton d’O when her regular partner was unavailable.) Arriving at a time when Montmartre still retained much of its countrified charm, Maclet set out to capture this feeling in both his watercolors and oils, employing a highly original, post-Impressionist style that exuded a childlike simplicity and an expanding range of colors, while using his natural skill with a palette knife to create a more varied surface texture. His early evocations of the hills, windmills, and streets of Montmartre — many painted in winter and skillfully suggesting snow by leaving those portions of the paper or canvas in their untouched white state — included renditions of some of the district’s most famous landmarks, such as the “Lapin Agile” cabaret and the “Moulin de la Galette,” the outdoor dance hall immortalized in one of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s (1841-1919) Impressionist masterworks. Moreover, Maclet’s innovative Montmartre landscapes preceded the stylistically similar efforts of his friend and painting companion, the famous Legion d’honneur awardee Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955), by several years, and it is believed by many that Utrillo was both aided and influenced by Maclet. In due course Maclet attracted a coterie of admirers, particularly from Parisian artistic circles: The famous author and Nobel Prize-nominee Sidenie-Gabrielle Collette (1873-1974) was an early enthusiastic supporter, followed by the novelist and poet, Francis Carco (1886-1958), and the poet, painter, and critic, Max Jacob (1876-1944), the latter responsible for the now-famous quote, “Maclet is an artist who likes to be mistaken for a small peasant of the North.” Despite his growing reputation, Maclet still lacked the means to support himself solely by his artistry, and so he took on jobs washing dishes and “shucking” oysters at various restaurants, and in 1909 served as a chef on a ship sailing from Marseilles to Indochina. Though he is known to have been primarily self-taught, Maclet is believed to have received instruction during this period from the noted French painter and illustrator, Georges Tiret-Bognet (1855-1935), a friend of Utrillo’s; additionally, Maclet may have gleaned technical insights from the famed French Impressionist painter, Edgar Degas (1834-1917), whose studio on the Boulevard de Clichy Maclet is known to have visited. Through associations forged at the Lapin Agile cabaret— a spot frequented by many of Montmartre’s artists and writers, including Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), and the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) — Maclet was able to further his standing, earning the patronage of the future Prix Femina-winning author Roland Dorgeles (1885-1973), the novelist and songwriter Pierre Mac Orlan (1882-1970), and multi-media visionary George Auriol (1863-1938). Maclet’s portfolio — now expanding to include the suburbs of Paris and floral still lifes — began to draw the interest of the merchants of Montmartre, many of whom came to hold his work in a higher regard than that of his better-known “School of Paris” contemporaries. Upon the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Maclet became a medical attendant at a hospital run by the Roman Catholic religious organization, the Little Sisters of the Poor. During his periods of leave he would head back to Montmartre, staying in the cabaret hall of the Lapin Agile and paying for his food by washing dishes and polishing copper pots. During one of these leaves he painted two small but important works: a depiction of one of Paris’ most iconic landmarks, the Sacre Coeur Basilica (built on the top of the hill upon which Montmartre is located), and a rendition of the Moulin de la Galette; both paintings were purchased by the well-known “offical executioner” of Paris, Anatole Deibler, who was also a prominent patron of the arts. In 1916, Maclet painted and exhibited crinoline dolls for the Salon des Humoristes held at the La Boétie Gallery in Paris. Two years later, following the cessation of wartime hostilities, he embarked on a period of artistic creativity that is generally regarded to have resulted in his most mature and significant body of work.
Hopeful that Maclet’s artistic horizons would be broadened by his immersion in entirely new suroundings, his friend Francis Carco invited him in 1918 to spend time at a house Carco rented in the northern seaside town of Dieppe, in France’s Normandy region. Carco’s hopes were fulfilled with Maclet’s production of a wealth of seascapes and coastal vistas notable for their re-creation of the dramatic Northern sky reflecting its deep blue color onto the green water, executed over the course of a year spent in Normandy. Returning to Montmartre, Maclet set out to artistically preserve the historic nature of the district before the rapidly progressing post-war transformation of Paris reduced its pastoral stretches of greenery and medieval windmills to relics of the past. As Maclet’s notoriety grew, his stature within Parisian art circles solidified to the point where not only were major gallery owners carrying his work, but several of them — including the famous dealers Pierre Menant and Matho Kleimann-Boch — hung his paintings alongside those of Picasso and Van Gogh. In the popular culture of the time he was often presented as the “new Utrillo,” even though the modest Maclet was in actuality Utrillo’s stylistic predecessor; Maclet also played an integral role in the artistic development of French painter Lucien Genin (1894-1953), with whom Maclet established what would become a close lifelong friendship around this time. In 1920, a prominent Parisian dealer named Dosbourg bought several of Maclet’s early scenes of Montmartre, providing Maclet with much-needed income and allowing him more time to exclusively concentrate on his art. That same year both Dosbourg and an influential American dealer, Hugo Perlsall — the latter responsible for the introduction of Maclet’s work in America — provided showcases for Maclet in their respective galleries. Perlsall, for his part, is known to have regarded Maclet as the equal of the other great painters of that period. In 1923, Maclet entered into a contract with a wealthy Austrian industrialist, Baron Von Fray, calling for him to paint in the South of France (also known as “the Midi”) for an extended period of time. Reputedly, a few hours after Maclet’s arrival in the city of Arles (which served as Maclet’s base in the region), the son of an old friend of Van Gogh’s said to him: “Not since Van Gogh have I seen a painter use color as pure as you do.” Circulating throughout a variety of settings in the South of France — with stops in the Italian Riviera, a region of which he was very fond — Maclet produced a wide array of landscapes illuminated by bright light and intense, almost Fauve-like colors, his stylistic evolution during this period characterized by bold, Impressionist-style brushwork and a developing command of perspective, with a rich, tactile quality achieved through the extensive use of impasto. Nearly all of Maclet’s compositions from his time spent in this region — encompassing the years 1924-1928 — were sent by Baron Van Fray to America, where wealthy collectors vied for them, with Maclet’s ability to translate onto canvas the nature and charm of his Mediterranean settings often drawing comparisons to Henri Matisse (1869-1954). In the period following his international breakthrough, Maclet was the subject of numerous magazine articles, and over time a number of public collections in Europe and America acquired examples of his work, including museums in Chicago, Bremen, Geneva, Sweden, Norway, and Monte Carlo, in addition to museums in Lyon and Grenoble in France. In 1928, Maclet was awarded his first major solo exhibition, held at the Gallerie Barreiro in Paris, in which over 50 of his works were put on display. At year’s end, he departed continental France on a painting excursion to the island of Corsica, a French possession in the Mediterranean Sea. He then spent 1929 and part of 1930 working in France’s northwesternmost region of Brittany, during which time his first showcase in America took place, at the P. Jackson Higgs Gallery in New York City, a venue distinguished for its collection of rare antiquities and for transactions involving Renaissance masters. Returning to his native Picardy in 1930, Maclet once again put the landscape of his childhood on canvas. However, in 1933, he was stricken with a serious episode of mental and emotional trauma, leaving him unable to paint and ultimately necessitating his internment for several months in the Sainte-Anne Hospital Center in Paris, one of France’s premier treatment facilities for psychiatric disorders. By all accounts, Maclet’s struggle with his mental health would prove to be a chronic ailment that would plague him for the remainder of his life.
Despite his personal difficulties, Maclet resumed his artistic studies of Paris in 1935. His work — which during the Nazi occupation of France symbolically featured a snow-blanketed Paris — continued to elicit considerable international interest: In 1941, the historically significant Perls Gallery in New York City — the successor to galleries in Berlin and Paris that played a major role in the dissemination of French modernism — held a one-man exhibition featuring his paintings. A large solo exhibition of his work, entitled “Around the Moulin,” was presented at the Norvins Gallery in Paris in 1945, garnering high praise from critics. Andre Warnot, the noted French writer and art critic, supplied the preface to the exhibition’s catalogue, in which he wrote: “What a happy spectacle to see Maclet paint. He begins by covering the top of his canvas with paint, the sky, the clouds. Then he attacks the chimneys and then the roofs, and then, floor by floor, he arrives at the street level of the houses … Under his brush, all becomes miraculously organized; he places the figures where they should be, and when he has painted the last paving block at the very bottom of the canvas, then he signs it. And the painting is finished; a happy painting expressing the joy of living.” In 1957 the first major retrospective of Maclet’s work was held at the Nicolas Poussin Gallery in Paris, and in 1960 the same gallery featured his work in its “Paintings of the Twentieth Century” exhibition; another major retrospective took place in 1961, at the Thibaut Gallery in New York City. Following his death in 1962, Maclet was posthumously accorded several international tributes, including solo exhibitions in Paris, Germany, and Venezuela, in addition to a prominent showcase at the Vestart Galleries in New York City in 1969. In 2011, the Bermuda National Gallery mounted a solo exhibition of his work (examples of which reside in their permanent collection). Of Maclet’s paintings featured in group shows in America, several newspapers offered commentary, including the Desert Sun (Palm Springs, Calif.), which in April 1970 wrote: “Both his affection for nature and for town life illuminate the canvas. Maclet’s works contain an honesty of soul, a vibrancy of reality.” The Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), reviewing a traveling show in 1989 that included works by Picasso, Renoir, and Matisse, asserted that “It is a painting, Elisee Maclet’s View of Cassis, that is the find of the collection.” Chronicling two exhibitions in September 1981 in Palm Beach, Florida, the Palm Beach Daily News stated: “The poetry of Maclet’s work has enchanted collectors since he first began painting Montmartre in 1906. . . . Because he was a gardener and son of a gardener he appears literally to transfer nature tenderly to the canvas. . . . The homage given him by the Nicolas Poussin Gallery in 1957, which contained paintings from all the periods of his career, established the well-earned status he deserved.” Reflecting on Maclet's standing among his peers, the respected BBC fine arts commentator, Gavin Claxton, has recently expressed the opinion that “Today … the School of Montmartre is basically thought of as being the ‘followers of Maurice Utrillo’ — artists such as Marcel Leprin (1891-1933), Lucien Genin, and Frank Will (1900-1951) — but I believe this is incorrect. If anyone is Head Master of this school it isn’t Utrillo but his contemporary, Elisee Maclet.”
Having spent his final years living in a windowless room in Montmartre, Elisee Maclet died in Paris on August 23, 1962. Currently, his work is represented in a number of major international collections, both public and private, with many of his paintings held by the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. Despite the circumstances befalling him at the end, Maclet’s life during this final period was put into perspective by his biographers, Marcel Guicheteau and Jean Cottel: “Maclet had returned to his first loves, to his first poems; but it was with all his experience, all his wisdom that the old man now bent over the familiar motifs; his minor song had become a song full of light. In the evening of his life he could repeat himself without copying himself, explaining himself, or humiliating himself; he could remember himself without destroying himself. He had brought his work to such a degree of perfection that each painting from then on justified itself by references to earlier work … like echoes answering each other at intervals of ten, fifteen, twenty years, all singing the same harmony.”
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