· France, Private Collection
The son of innkeepers who was known for the quality of his drawing, Jules Desbois began his apprenticeship in a studio in the Touraine, and then received a classical education in Angers which combined studio practice and courses at the Fine Arts School. His talent won him a scholarship so that when he was 20 years old, Desbois entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he attended the studio of Cavelier, a former student of David d’Angers. When Desbois left the school in 1878, he mastered a classical style energized by a taste for the antique and the female figure. In 1875, the sculptor exhibited in the Salon of French Artists for the first time. He subsequently joined the Salon of the National Society of Fine Arts created in 1890 by Puvis de Chavannes.
After a sojourn in the United States where he hoped to make his fortune, Desbois entered Rodin’s studio in 1884 as an assistant. He had met the master at the construction site of Trocadero. The friendship and collabo¬ration between the two sculptors would last until Rodin’s death. Perhaps contact with the latter led Desbois to break with his academic training in order to taste the freedom which culminated in works like Misery (1894 Salon, Nancy Fine Arts Museum,) a poignant image of old age. The artist was on a constant quest for the representation of movement, and found a precious source of inspiration in the universe of dance .If the memory of Jules Desbois has been somewhat lost in Rodin’s shadow, his art proves to be nonetheless singular, personal, and anchored in the 19th century.
With the curiosity of his era, Desbois explored different forms of art. He worked a long time for the Manufacture of Sevres, and participated in exhibitions of “Art in Everything” at the turn of the century, a group which advocated useful art integrated into daily life. Exhausted by the sequels of a serious automobile accident, he stopped sculpting in 1930, and finished a fertile career by devoting himself to pastels, as his obituary reminds us:
“In his last years, Jules Desbois […] exhibited delicate fresh pastels in the Salon which, with their reduced dimensions, expressed the quiet mystery of interiors enlivened by a feminine presence […], the rosy svelteness of his nudes whose youth surged out of a studio corner. He was justly proud of these fine works […] because he was rightly persuaded of the unity of art”.
In our pastel, Jules Desbois returns to the female model who had so inspired him. The audacious composition presents the back of a woman, her nude body displayed without modesty. Her face hidden in her arms evokes secret pain. The same burrowing gesture can be seen in one of the artist’s sculpted masterpieces, Leda and the Swan, exhibited in the Salon of 1891, and then commissioned in marble by the State.
The young woman is stretched across fabrics which seem to have been draped specifically for a modeling session. In contrast, behind a screen in the background, an open desk and a few knick-knacks evoke the intimacy of an interior. Here we are on Boulevard Murat in the studio which the artist had occupied since 1900 and where he would remain til the end.
The sculptor’s soul is revealed in the monumentality with which he handles the body with impeccable modeling. In addition, Desbois displays unexpected qualities as a colorist. The atmosphere is dominated by the old yellow of the fabrics and the colored grey of a complementary purple. Pure almost saturated tones highlight certain details. Yellow frankly emphasizes the knots of a shoulder, the stretch of the spinal column, and the flesh of the calves. It can be seen on the fabric folds and the ridge of the frame. Raw whites convey the light on the ear and shoulder, while ultra¬marine energizes the short hair and angle of the desk. The artist masters his medium: superimposition does not crush the colors while their blending shows off the smoothness of the flesh; the stroke remains visible to heighten relief.
In an article on the artist which was published in 1931, Paul Moreau-Vauthier reproduced our pastel on the first page among other female nudes which have since disappeared. Our work constitutes precious evidence of the activity of Jules Desbois as a pastellist equally represented in Paris at the Petit Palais Museum by a Bust of a Nude Woman, in the Museum of Angers by a Corner of the Studio, and at the Orsay Museum by a still life of Apples against a Red Drapery Background.
Bibliography of the Oeuvre:
Paul MOREAU-VAUTIER, "Jules Desbois, sculpteur et pastelliste," L’art et les artistes, no 121, November 1931, pp. 42-48, ill. p. 42.
Pierre MAILLOT, Raymond HUARD, Jules Desbois. 1851-1935. Une célébration tragique de la vie, Paris, 2000.
Véronique WIESINGER, Jules Desbois (1851-1935), sculpteur de talent ou imitateur de Rodin ?, Paris, 1987.
Marie-Christine BOUCHER, Daniel IMBERT, Palais des Beaux-Arts de la ville de Paris. Musée du Petit Palais. Catalogue Sommaire Illustré des pastels, Paris, 1963, no 35.