Room One of the National Gallery is continuing its run of small well-crafted free exhibitions with the work of the French artist Louis-Leopold Boilly, the first ever UK exhibition devoted to him. Little known in the UK, Boilly was born in 1761 in Lille and moved to Paris in 1785 to paint. He lived through the fall of the Ancien Régime, the Revolution of 1789, the Terror, rise and fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the monarchy, capturing the changing society and mood of the country in his art.
He may not have the renown of Jacques-Louis David but Boilly’s work is so engaging and clever in its detailing. He was also hugely successful commercially, turning his hand to various mediums and styles that proved popular and are on display in the exhibition. Boilly had to learn quickly about the Paris art market when he arrived, not having any patronage from the members of the royal court, so he set about marketing himself with an exhibition, something he wouldn’t have been able to do before the Revolution and that only members of the Academy had the privilege to do.
The exhibition starts with Boilly’s small intimate genre scenes of the 1790s. They’re delicate and warm even if formulaic: two elegant figures, in elegant rooms, and a still life element. These genre works were popular in Paris and were based on the popular Dutch paintings of the time. They became semi-famous pieces for their sexual overtones with uncovered legs and two women kissing. But in 1794 these works got him into trouble with the revolutionary artists society, which decided that his work was too damaging to the morals of the new revolutionary regime. He found himself up in front of the Committee for Public Safety but, rather than fall foul of it, he talked his way out of it, with the wit and ingenuity that runs through his work, and ended up talking his way onto the artists society.
His masterpiece of the revolutionary period is The Meeting of Artists in Isabey’s Studio (1798). On loan from The Louvre, it features Boilly and 30 other leading artists, architects and poets painted together at the salon as a declaration that these are the people making the art of this new country. It’s not the large works of David that espouse great ideals, but is about who’s creating them. Boilly is reflecting on what’s happening, rather than what’s meant to happen, a key notion that’s visible throughout his street scenes.
The exhibition houses a number of Boilly’s stunning street scenes, some watercolour drawings and others paintings. They espouse the ideas of charity, but don’t shy away from the darkness and rawness of the streets, being full of life and reflecting all sections of society. He uses colour to highlight elements of the watercolour drawings, pointing to the stories in them. They’re something so light, modern, almost comic in style in the way he draws them, yet they convey such expression and life. It’s hard not think of Hogarth’s works as you look at them. The Barrel Game painting is full of characters up to no good, with little details such as one man lighting his pipe from another man’s in the corner, all very Hogarthian, if not so visceral.
The star of the exhibition, though, is A Carnival Scene. Painted in 1832 when Boilly was in his 70s, it is so intricate and refined. It pulls together all the tricks of his street scenes and he has filled it with hundreds of individual characters at a carnival in fancy dress from all the different periods he had painted through. There’s a man in revolutionary women’s dress mooning and a small boy blowing a horn, while a dog runs with a theatrical mask on its tale as if talking out his behind at us. It’s a piece that’s full of movement, energy and a sense of spectacle, all bringing to life the melange of the carnival and showing us the wit of the man behind it. Boilly’s exquisite detailing becomes all the more obvious as you look closer at the figures. From a distance those at the centre in aristocratic clothing seem normal but, as you get closer, you notice that their faces are covered with flesh coloured masks that are held on with fine pink ribbon and are completely expressionless, visible only due to the shadow and lift off effect and the hollow expression of the eyes. This detailing is only surpassed in the exhibition by the bug on the finest of fine strings flying around in Madame Louis-Julien Gohin, Her Son and Her Stepdaughters.
While Boilly stopped painting the popular genre scenes because they no longer fitted with the mood of the times, his commercial nouse continued. In the 1820s he realised he could make money from selling lithograph prints like The Poor Cat. They were quick and easy to produce and could be sold in large runs rather than as one- off time consuming and expensive paintings, though he did come back to some of the prints and make oil paintings of them, as he did with The Poor Cat, both versions of which are on display.
However, his most ingenious commercial move is represented by the 3 small portraits each measuring 22×17. Each is in the same style frame, on the same style board and represents the 5,000 or so of these style portraits he produced. Boilly claimed they each took two hours, and sold them for the very affordable price of 120 francs. His prefabrication made them cheap, quick and accessible to almost all in this time of liberté, égalité and fraternité, and they became his bread and butter and what he lived off mostly as he didn’t tend to sell the larger street scenes.
Boilly’s commercial mind and his love of tricking his audience could be said to culminate, as the exhibition does, with his trompe l’oeil (a term he seems to have coined) works. They amazed the crowds when exhibited and on occasions had to be removed from display as so many touched them in disbelief that they were just paintings. The skill of the Ivory Crucifix is joyous to see.
Rarely does an exhibition give you a sense of its subject’s interests, skills and personality, especially such a small exhibition of an artist little known (in the U.K.), but Dr Francesca Whitlam-Cooper has curated an exhibition that does all that. You’re left with a sense of who this man was, what made him tick, smile and laugh. Boilly was a man of wit, attention to detail and who took great thought and care, but also tried to warm heartedly cock a snoop at the audience which he knew how to amaze and service to his financial gain. It is an exhibition well worth your time.
Boilly – Scenes of Parisian Life
Room 1 of the National Gallery
Runs until 19th May 2019(5 / 5)
Feature Image – X10362, Louis-Léopold Boilly, A Carnival Scene, 1832, Oil on canvas, 60.3 × 106.5 cm, The Ramsbury Manor Foundation, Photo © courtesy the Trustees