Henri Gervex (1852-1929)
The sensation of the Paris salon for 1878 was, paradoxical as it may seem, a painting which was not there.
It was a canvas by Henry Gervex, and was founded on the last lines of Alfred de Musset's famous poem, "Rolla."
It was a masterpiece, one of the few real great works of modern art. Artists and critics alike
loaded it with applause, and hailed the painter with acclamations as he took his afternoon promenade. But
the Administration of the salon, happened to be in a particularly censorious mood that spring, and excluded
the picture. The artist then exhibited it in the gallery of a dealer in the Rue de la Chaussee-d'Antin, where all
Paris flocked to see it. It was probably the most successful private exhibition ever
made in Paris, and it laid a secure foundation for the artist's fortune.
Henri Gervex was born in Paris in 1852. He commenced to study art under the venerable master Pierre Nicholas Brisset,
then studied under Fromentin, and finally concluded his course under Cabanel. In 1873 he exhibited for the first time
"A Bather Sleeping," a remarkable study of the nude. The next year he took a medal of the second class, with the
"Satyr Sporting with a Bacchante," a picture which was purchased by the State for the Luxembourg. In 1876 he
was medalled again, for a powerful realistic picture, representing the surgeons holding an autopsy
on the body of a patient in the Hotel Dieu hospital. In 1877 the state purchased another of his pictures,
a communion scene in a village church which is now in the Government collection. All this while his fame
had been rising steadily, but th struggle was still severe when the sensation caused by "Rolla" brought it to a
climax, and added a new master to the roll of honor of French art. Commissions for portraits rolled in, his
pictures were sold from the easel, he received so many orders for the decoration of private houses that he was
compelled to refuse a portion
of them, and two years after the State had rejected his "Rolla" it annointed the wound
with balm by appointing him to paint the great decorative panels for the Mayor's Office
of the Nineteenth Arrondissement. This engagement secured him also
admission into the Legion of Honor. When "The Masked Model" appeared at the Salon, it created a sensation
second only to that of the picture which did not appear. It became popularly rumored that the original was a great
lady, who had
consented to pose for the artist under condition that her face should be covered so
as to prevent her from being identified, and this added piquant interest to the
magnificent art displayed in the picture. As a matter of fact, however, it was only
the figure of a professional model. While posing for Gervex she had, in a spirit of fun,
put on a ball mask which was hanging to the wall, and the effect was so original
that the artist used it for his finished picture.
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