A first painting by Edelfelt for the Petit Palais

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23/5/23 - Acquisition - Paris, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris - A familiar image in French school textbooks, the Portrait of Louis Pasteur by Albert Edelfelt was paradoxically much better known in this country than its author, who was nevertheless the first Finnish artist to join the French public collections. Presented at the 1886 Salon, this portrait of one of the most famous scientists of his time was a great success and was immediately bought by the State - for the Sorbonne - while the painter was decorated with the Légion d’honneur. Albert Edelfelt died prematurely in his native land in 1905 and was gradually forgotten - in France - while his Divine Service by the Sea was generously loaned to the Prefecture of the Haut-Rhin in Colmar between 1926 and 2013, a situation we regretted as early as 2009 (see article), when a fascinating exhibition in Lille (see article) sought to restore the value of Franco-Scandinavian artistic links between 1870 and 1914. Disregarding this Gallocentric history of art, the Petit Palais, directed by Christophe Leribault, had instead set itself the task of making various Nordic artists as attractive as Carl Larsson and Anders Zorn better known, before offering a very fine Edelfelt retrospective between March and July 2022 (see article).

1. Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905)
Portrait of Henry Marcel, 1890
Oil on canvas - 68.5 x 78 cm
Paris, Petit Palais - Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris
Photo: Ader Nordmann & Dominique
See the image in its page

Painted in 1890, the Portrait of Henry Marcel (ill. 1) that reappeared at a sale organised by Ader Nordmann & Dominique at the Hôtel Drouot on 12 May could easily have been included if it had not remained in the model’s descendants. Signed and dated, the painting immortalises a great servant of the State, then aged thirty-six. Soberly dressed, he is seated in a leather armchair to better contemplate a print or a drawing from a portfolio. A member of the Parisian bourgeoisie, a descendant of Mirabeau and of the sculptor Philippe-Laurent Roland, Henry Marcel (1854-1926) is largely forgotten today, despite his decades-long career in the administration. A theatre enthusiast, he considered a career as an actor for a time and enrolled at the Conservatoire before returning to the ranks and studying law. He joined the Conseil d’État, where he quickly made his mark and became Armand Fallières’ chief of staff before joining Jules Ferry and his friend Gabriel Hanotaux - whom he had met at the Conservatoire - at the Quai d’Orsay. A right-wing man, close to the great figures of the Third Republic, Henry Marcel nevertheless failed to be elected deputy and continued his career in the high civil service. Appointed maître des requêtes at the Conseil d’Etat in 1885 thanks to Jules Ferry, he was still sitting there when he was portrayed by Albert Edelfelt.

Modestly estimated at €15/20,000 by the auction house, the painting was finally sold for €64,000 with costs and fortunately pre-empted by the Petit Palais, to which it seemed almost naturally destined, given the Parisian museum’s efforts to better promote Nordic artists who made their careers in Paris at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, as Anne-Charlotte Cathelineau, chief curator and curator of last year’s Edelfelt exhibition, told us. An art lover, Henry Marcel was also a critic and collector: thus, in the background of the composition, we can see a beautiful drawing by Jules-Élie Delaunay, still kept by the family and reproduced as a vignette in the sale catalogue.

2. Jean-Joseph Weerts (1847-1927)
Portrait of Henry Marcel in his study, 1912
Oil on panel - 31 x 40 cm
Current location unknown
Photo: Ader Nordmann & Dominique
See the image in its page

Henry Marcel was probably keen on this sheet as it is found on a second portrait (ill. 2) offered at Ader Nordmann & Dominique on 12 May: painted in 1912 by Jean-Joseph Weerts, this one did not trigger the same enthusiasm and was sold for €3,840 with expenses. However, it has the advantage of showing the man in his heyday, after he had reoriented his career towards the administration of the Beaux-Arts. A short-lived directeur des Beaux-Arts between October 1903 and January 1905, he nevertheless worked to support Frantz Jourdain and the Salon d’Automne: despite attacks from the Institute, the latter was able to be held at the Grand Palais, and Henry Marcel even had works by Matisse purchased by the State. He was also responsible for the acquisition of the Château de Maisons-Laffitte, a masterpiece of 17th-century architecture that remained in private hands and was saved from demolition while its park was ruthlessly subdivided. Leaving the rue de Valois, he tried to find a new position at the Comédie-Française but had to fall back on the Bibliothèque nationale, where he stayed between 1905 and 1913 before becoming director of the Musées nationaux from 1913 to 1919.

Henry Marcel’s personality and career were recently studied by Agathe Dufour, who wrote her thesis at the École des Chartes under the direction of Jean-Michel Leniaud and Michèle Sacquin: defended in 2007, it does not seem to have been published, but a rich résumé can be found online, from which we have drawn extensively in the writing of this article. Agathe Dufour recalls how much the man sought out the company of artists all his life, managing to combine his professional ambitions with his personal passions until his dismissal in 1919. As early as 1900, he wrote an article on his ancestor Roland in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts and was throughout his life a passionate amateur, the walls of his flat in the rue Meissonnier being lined with paintings and drawings bought from artists or at the Hôtel Drouot. Part of his collection was the subject of a bequest to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Reims.

3. Octave Denis Victor Guillonnet (1872-1967)
Portrait of Henry Marcel, 1916
Oil on canvas - 56 x 54 cm
Private collection
Photo: Ader Nordmann & Dominique
See the image in its page

In addition to Edelfelt and Weerts, Agathe Dufour points out that other artists - Alfred Roll, Henri Le Sidaner or Ernest Laurent - painted a portrait of this important figure of the art world. A third effigy (ill. 3) was offered at Ader Nordmann & Dominique on 12 May where it remained unsold despite a modest estimate. As Anne-Charlotte Cathelineau writes in her note, the Portrait of Henry Marcel by Albert Edelfelt should soon find its place on the walls of the Petit Palais, whose rich collections were built around the founding bequest of the brothers Auguste and Eugène Duthuit, who assembled an immense collection renowned for its graphic arts. More recently, the Parisian museum was able to buy at auction in New York the portrait of another personality of great importance for the history of modern printmaking: Loÿs Delteil, painted by Paul Mathey (see the news item of 20/4/21). Finally, just a year ago, an irresistible Grotesque by the Finnish sculptor Ville Valgren was judiciously preempted by the Petit Palais at the time of the sale of the Charles Auzoux collection at Artcurial (see the news item of 24/5/22): how can we not be pleased to continue to see works by Nordic artists, somewhat forgotten by posterity in France, finally offered to the public? Albert Edelfelt was considered "the most Parisian of the Finns and the most Finnish of the Parisians" before being largely neglected by French art history. His beautiful portrait of Henry Marcel had been shown twice in Paris during his lifetime, at the International Exhibition of Painting at the Georges Petit Gallery in December 1890 and then at the Salon de la Société nationale des Beaux-Arts in May 1891: we are already impatiently awaiting the third and definitive episode.

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