Mystery and Mastery: The Life of E. Galien-Laloue
By Jeffrey Morseburg
Eugène Galien-Laloue (1854–1941) was one of the most mysterious and prolific French artists of the Belle Époque. He was a gifted draughtsman who seemed like he was born with a brush in his facile hand. In his tiny gouaches Galien-Laloue rendered every detail of fin-de-siècle Parisian architecture with absolute precision, but in his other paintings he worked in the painterly tradition of the Barbizon School and the Impressionists, recording life in the rural French countryside in light-filled canvasses. Indeed, he painted so many different subjects, and each with the same measure of grace and facility, that it seems like he was more than one man, a painter with an artistic version of multiple personality disorder. In fact, Galien-Laloue’s split artistic personality led him to sign his works not only with his own name, but with a number of pseudonyms, a fact that only became clear after his death.
The Early Life of E. Galien-Laloue
There have been two stories about Galien-Laloue’s origins. In one, he was born of Italian-French parentage, with the given name Galiany, which was later changed to Galien-Laloue. In the other account, which seems to be more accurate and that concurs with public records, Galien-Laloue’s father was Charles Laloue, who was an artist and set designer. He and the future artist’s mother, Endoxie Lambert, were married in December of 1853. Almost exactly a year later, on December 11, 1854, their first child, a son named Eugène, was born. There is a birth certificate in existence with his name spelled Eugène the hyphenated Gallien-Laloue, but the artist spelled the “Galien” with a single “l” throughout his career.
The Laloue family lived on Rue Leonie in the Montmatre, an artistic enclave where many of the Parisian bohemians resided. Eugene was an artistically talented boy and we know that he received at least some artistic training from his father, who would have been adept at drawing and painting because of his career as a designer. There were nine children in the hard-pressed family and, upon Charles Laloue’s untimely death Galien-Laloue left school at the age of fifteen to take on the practical career of a notary. In 1871, after the short, deadly war broke out between militaristic Prussia and France, Galien Laloue joined the army, lying about his age to do so. Unfortunately, the war did not end well for the French, and after the Siege of Paris and the Gallic surrender, Galien-Laloue went back to civilian life, determined to become a painter.
Youth and Training
During the 1870s, virtually everyone who wanted to make a living as a fine artist had to take the prescribed route. That meant becoming a member of the French Academy, offially known as L’Académie des beaux-arts, which was at the center of the Parisian art world. The artists of the academy served on the jury that selected paintings for the annual Salon, Le Salon de peinture et de sculpture, a massive exhibition where works by more than a thousand artists and sculptors were hung chock-a-block from floor to ceiling on the walls of the monumental building, the Palais de l’Industrie on the wide avenue of the Champs-Élysées. Because there was a paucity of galleries in that era, an aspiring artist needed to gain entry in the salon so that collectors could view his work. Acceptance by the salon jury also served as a sort of official stamp of approval for collectors, assuring them the artist whose work they enjoyed was worth collecting.
In order to be nominated to the French Academy, an artist followed a well-tread course of instruction. Students attended either the official school, the École des beaux-arts de Paris, or received instruction in the private atelier of an established artist, often one of the luminaries of the Salon. 19th-century instruction was laborious and thorough. It normally and began with copying engravings and then “working from the antique,” which meant doing black and white tonal studies from classical statuary or casts made from Greek or Roman marbles. Then artists drew from the nude model, in graphite or charcoal, working among thickets of easels in drafty rooms in the student quarter. The master would come in the afternoons to critique their student’s work. Advancement from one phase of instruction to another was based on mastery rather than an arbitrary period of instruction.
After years of drawing the young artists would begin to paint under the supervision of the established master and, when he deemed them ready, they would submit their work to the Salon. To the Salon jury, a student’s association with an established painter would often smooth their path to acceptance or even a more desirable spot on the monumental walls, closer to “the line,” which meant at eye level. In Galien-Laloue’s era, academic instruction was all pointed toward the production of large figurative works. Landscape painting was something that artists pursued on their own, usually on their summer holidays when they left the city for one of the art colonies to the south or west of Paris.
There is no record that Galien-Laloue followed this usual path to artistic success. He was later listed in the Salon catalog as an élève (student) of an uncle, Charles Laloue. There are also accounts that list his instructor as “M.C. Laloue” or “Claude Laloue.” Perhaps he did have an uncle who was also a minor painter or perhaps these are all references to his father, with the errors that occasionally crept into the records, but in any event, there is no record of Galien-Laloue attending the École des beaux-arts, L‘Académie Julian or one of the other private ateliers. When one looks carefully at Galien-Laloue’s œuvre, his artistic production, the logical conclusion is that he ceertainly had some instruction in drawing, in perspective and in the gouache and oil mediums, but that his training did not take the usual course, which meant an emphasis on portraiture and the drawing and painting of the figure. While the cast of characters that populate his Parisian scenes are well drawn, they are more illustrative than small portraits of distinct individuals. What instruction Galien-Laloue had seems to have equipped him for a career in illustration, something he was well suited to because of his ability to draw accurately, even on the smallest scale.
The aspiring artist’s career took a fortunate turn when he was hired as an illustrator for the French railways, the Chemins de Fer de l’Ouest, which were then expanding westward across France. The 1860s and 1870s were times of limitless industrial expansion and like the American railways, the French system of trains and tracks was multiplying rapidly. Illustrators were hired to record the monumental work that was being done and also to illustrate the sights that awaited passengers at the end of the line. Galien-Laloue’s employment took him to the French provinces, where, inspired by the Barbizon School, he was able to sketch in the countryside, recording the life of the rural French. The association with the railroad was a boon to his artistic career. Young Galien-Laloue soon struck out on his own, taking rooms on the rue de Clignancourt, a short street that was constructed only a few years before the painter settled there. The young artist was described as a loner, an introvert, who preferred constant work to the gay social life of the modern city. He lived a well-ordered existence, keeping careful accounts of his commerce, for precision was important to him in all things as well as in his art. Galien-Laoue was not a mixer or joiner, and was a man who did not suffer fools gladly, and hence had the reputation of being difficult to get along with.
The Painting of Modern Life – l’Moderne
Now, as modern viewers, what we have to keep in mind was that Paris had been undergoing a radical transformation throughout Galien-Laloue’s youth. The rabbit warren of small streets with open sewers that had been Paris was over and done with. The slums were torn down by Baron Haussmann, a protean city planner. Haussmann was charged with building the new Paris, the city we now know and love, Paris of les Grand Boulevards. When the first Emperor Napoleon departed for his final exile in 1815, he left Paris with five great boulevards, wide avenues that radiated out in a star pattern from the monumental Arc de Triomphe. Under Napoleon III, his grand-nephew, five more wide avenues were opened in 1857. A few years later, a series of quaint villages on the outskirts of Paris were annexed by the French metropolis, subsumed to create the outline of the city we know. As a boy, Galien-Laloue would have seen the construction of the new theater district, the architect Charles Garnier’s famous “wedding cake” of an opera building and the great parks that make the city so livable. So, the Paris that was such a captivating subject for the artists of the Belle Époque attracted them not for its nostalgic appeal – ironically the reason that we enjoy the street scenes now – but because it was then a new city, a gleaming example of Industrial-Age, cast-iron and bolted modernity.
The art of the second half of the nineteenth century, Galien-Laloue’s era, was motivated by this modernity. In their Paris days, the Impressionists and their circle depicted the life that they knew – not the allegorical fantasies or escapist travelogues of the established painters, but modern life in the cafes, parks, streets and rehearsal halls of modern Paris. This was the Paris of Edgar Degas’ (1834-1917) dancers and Gustave Caillebotte’s (1848-1894) rainy day Parisians and John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) Mademe X. Galien-Laloue was intrigued by his city from the start, and it was the subject of his earliest mature works. And, not coincidentally for Galien-Laloue, in the years after the Revolution of 1848, with steamships and railroads cutting weeks off travel time, Paris had become a popular tourist destination, helping the little works that Galien-Laloue did throughout his career to become treasured keepsakes for well-heeled tourists.
At the same time, the forces of modernization also ironically propelled Galien-Laloue’s landscapes, the other subject that he painted from early in his career. The popularity of the Barbizon School and the later Naturalist movement were a reaction to the growth of the great cities. The countryside became a place of refuge, where people escaped the busy city. As rural people migrated to the cities and fewer of them knew the beauty and travails of rural life first hand, artists and writers turned the people of the soil into exploited workers, promethean characters or romantic beauties, who, as Corot said, “would not have remained in the village for too long.” Galien-Laloue was one of the many city-raised painters who sought the beauty of the rural landscape on short trips and summer sojourns, finding subjects for his paintings that were far different from the Paris scenes that quickly became his calling card.
Galien-Laloue was not a happy traveler and so he usually confined his sketching trips to the roads and villages in the Ile-de-France Region, where he could draw views of the rivers in the Seine-et-Marne département near Paris. He was said to be an avid bicyclist, and the machine would have been an ideal mode of transport for an artist who worked on a small scale, often sketching in pencil to search out subjects. Samois-sur-Seine was a lovely village, where the banks of the Marne were lined with poplars and other trees, and it was the subject of a number of his early landscapes. Fontenay-sous-Bois was another village on the outskirts of Paris that was popular with Galien-Laloue and other artists. He also painted in the old Gaulish town of Melun, and further afield, in the Vendée. On occasion he made sketching trips to the Normandy peninsula and as far south as Marseilles and the French Riviera. Influenced by older painters like Eugène Boudin (1824-1898) and Johan Jongkind (1819-1891), Galien-Laloue painted scenes of the seashore and of the great harbor at Marseilles. While some of these marines were in a limited Tonalist palette, others are bright and full of light, showing an awareness of Impressionism. It is difficult to track the painter’s travels, because once he became adept at painting landscapes and at employing naturalistic outdoor color, he was known to have based some of his paintings on postcards or photographs.
Galien-Laloue’s Exhibtion Career and Influences
In 1876, at the age of twenty-one, Galien-Laoue began his exhibition career, when his painting Le quai aux fleurs par la neige was accepted for an exhibition at the museum in Reims. In the following year he exhibited for the first time with the Salon des Artistes Français, the vast but still prestigious national exhibition. The paintings that he exhibited in that first Salon show the dual nature of his career. First there was a landscape, En Normandie, and then what is presumably a Parisian scene, Bord de la Seine, au soleil couchant or “Banks of the Seine with a Setting Sun.” In the 1878 Salon he was back with another rural subject, Soleil couchant sur les bords de la Marne, or “Setting Sun over the Banks of the Marne,” and Les Bords de la Seine a Saint Denis, which would have been a Parisian scene on the banks of the winding Seine. For the next several years he exhibited primarily smaller Barbizon-inspired rural works and moved frequently from one address to another, all within Paris’ 18th arrondissement, the quarter he grew up in and was most familiar with. He also married a young woman named Flore Bardin, but unfortunately she would die in 1887, leaving him a single son, Fernand.
In 1889, Galien-Laloue exhibited his work in the Salon for the last time for many years, showing two gouache rural scenes, Bernay and Bords de la Meuse. Now, the reason for his long break from the prestigious Salon is not known, but in 1890, William Adolph Bouguereau (1825-1905), the president of the Société des Artistes Français, caused a split in the organization by insisting that the Salon should honor young artists who had not yet won the accolades that had been heaped on Bouguereau and his contemporaries. The military painter Jean-Louis-Ernest Messionier (1815-1891) and the sculptor Jules Dalou (1838-1902) reorganized an old breakaway organization, the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and began to hold a second annual Salon that opened two weeks after the “official” Salon. Whether Galien-Laloue ended up on the wrong side of the schism or was simply turned off by art world politics and didn’t need the Salon to boost his career any longer isn’t known, but he wasn’t to return to the “official” Salon until 1904. In 1892, he married for the second time, this time to the older sister of his wife, Ernestine Bardin, a practice that was very common in that era. While Ernestine was late in her childbearing years, she bore Galien-Laloue a daughter, Ernestine Eugènie Laloue, the following year, at the age of thirty-seven.
It isn’t known which painter – if any – that Galien-Laloue modeled himself after in his adoption of the city of Paris as his lifelong subject. However, there were two slightly older contemporaries who were already painting and exhibiting scenes of Paris when Galien-Laloue got his start, Luigi Loir (1845-1916) and Jean Béraud (1849 –1935). Luigi Aloys-Francois-Joseph Loir was an Austrian-born painter with French parentage who began to paint some of the first modern views of Haussmann’s Paris, cityscapes where the populated city itself, rather than its people, were the subject. Béraud was born in Russia to French parents and his take on the city was somewhat different from Loir’s and, at times even whimsical. He focused on the streets of Paris, but his subject was the people in the city, incidental scenes of Parisian archetypes that he spied from the cab he had converted into a mobile studio. So, as Galien-Laloue’s career began to gather steam, he had not only the large Impressionist scenes of the modern city and its people for inspiration, but two artists who were generally working on a smaller scale and focusing on Paris as a subject.
Although Loir and Béraud and other painters had focused on Paris in the way just described, none of Galien-Laloue’s contemporaries seemed to go about recording the street life of the great metropolis quite as methodically as he did. With his tremendous ability and a seemingly endless supply of patience, it was he who made the Parisian street scene the commercial enterprise we recognize it as today. He strolled the city, usually sketching the scene before him in pencil, recording every detail of the architecture for the more detailed paintings he would do back in his atelier. Galien-Laloue filled countless sketchbooks with the construction and architectural details of the Parisian intersections and the people that filled its streets. The pencil and charcoal sketches are neat and precise and when one views a large number of his works, it is clear that the same sketches were used again and again for the basis of paintings, only with different characters moved around to populate the scene.
Galien-Laoue painted all of the major intersections and monuments of Paris, the Théâtre du Châtelet in one painting, the grand cathedral of Notre Dame in another, the Panthéon, that resting place of the heralded in still another. He painted the panoramic vista of the Place de la Concorde, where French royalty met its fate, with Les Invalides, the final resting place of Napoleon, in the distance. Porte Saint-Martin and Porte Saint-Denis, those great, decorative vestigial gates of ancient Paris, were subjects that he tackled again and again. Galien-Laloue was an adept plein-air painter and he used his skills to record not only the architectural details of the scenes, but the atmospheric effects, clearly one of the lasting influences of the Barbizon painters and the Impressionists who followed them. He sketched on the banks of the Seine and its dozens of bridges, these more panoramic scenes allowing him to capture the misty mornings on the river, where much of the grand architecture is only a haunting shadow in the mist. Galien-Laloue’s work had a greater degree of realism than some of the painters who followed him, for he painted buildings under construction, ships being unloaded and men at work. His Paris was seen in every season, every time of day and with every activity would expect to see during the Belle Epoque, the era of peace and prosperity between the German invasions of 1871 and 1914.
Galien-Laloue did not usually date his paintings and, because the technique and medium he relied upon for his Paris scenes remained consistent throughout his career, most of the dates can only be estimated, judged from exhibited works or from buildings and architectural elements that can be dated. The Place de la Republique, for example, was an old square that was redeveloped in the 1850s and 1860s and the huge and ungainly monument sculpted by the Morice Brothes symbolizing the Republic was only erected in 1883. So, when we see it in many of Galien-Laloue’s works it is fresh and clean, radically different from the soot-blackended monument that we see in an Edoard Cortes (1883-1969) painting of the 1930s. He painted the crowds in the theater district, with bright lights reflecting on the wet streets. His subjects included the “divine” Sarah Bernhardt’s Théâtre de la Renaissance and the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin. We can date some of Galien-Laloue’s paintings to the time of the great Paris World’s Fairs, the Exposition Universelle of 1889 and its successor in1900. The Palais du Trocadero and the Tour Eiffel were erected for the 1889 fair and while the Trocadero Palace was eventually torn down, Gustave Eiffel’s tower remains with us today and we can thank providence that it was built rather than the giant guillotine that had been proposed to celebrate the centennial of 1879.
The looming Conciergerie, which was the city’s old prison up to the French Revolution, was a subject that Galien-Laloue clearly enjoyed. In his day, the area across from the foreboding old building had become a favorite area for flower sellers and other vendors and the daubs of color he rendered them with would have made these little works particularly salable. Paris is often a gray city, and a flower stall or flower cart was an important element of color in his paintings. One of Galien-Laloue’s favorite subjects may have been the L’église de la Madeleine, the huge Roman temple of a neo-classical church that Napoleon commissioned. The artist gave us the Madeleine in winter, with Parisians scurrying past the huge Doric columns, as well as in summer, with the flower sellers in the shadow of the rather severe and cold classical architecture. Many of his works concentrate not on panoramic views of the vast building but on the commercial life of the vendors and passers-by that took place on the sidewalks in front of the unlikely church.
We don’t know a great deal about who Galien-Laloue sold his paintings, to, but because of their size and his Parisian subjects, we can presume that many of them were sold to tourists, visitors from Great Britain and the United States who visited Paris while they were on the “Grand Tour.” We know that many of them made their way across the Atlantic and into the collections of wealthy Americans from New York or Boston or Chicago. Because there were not many galleries in Paris in the years before the turn of the century, one would guess that he may have relied upon booksellers along the Seine to sell his paintings to tourists or even have displayed them in restaurants or cafes frequented by the well-heeled tourists who flocked to the city, especially in the fair years of 1878, 1889 and 1900.
The Later Career of E. Galien-Laloue
Soon after the dawn of the new century, Galien-Laloue moved to Fontainebleau, perhaps because of his interest in the rural landscape, but another consideration may have been to find a more pleasant life for his family. He also returned to the Salon, exhibiting Le boulevard Bonne Nouvelle in 1904 and more street scenes of Paris in subsequent exhibitions for the next ten years, until the outbreak of World War I in August of 1914. As a patriotic Frenchman he volunteered for military service, but he was sixty years old, so he supported the war effort through his paintings, depicting the French soldiers, known colloquially as the polieu battling the hated Germans. In 1919 his daughter Flore was married and in 1925 his second wife passed away. A short time later, he married yet another sister, Claire Bardin, the third of the Bardin women he would marry, but in 1933 she two passed away. In his old age, he moved back to Paris, where he lived with his daughter, her husband and her children, but he was said to have kept to himself, true to his introverted character. Galien-Laloue continued to paint, but his artistic production slowed and by the end of his career he was a man who was out of step with both his own family and the artistic world of the 1930s. In 1940, when the third war of his long life broke out with the Germans, he was still painting, but he broke his arm during the evacuation of Paris. He spent his last days at the family’s country house in Val d’Oise, where he died in 1941, during the German occupation. This is one of the longer biographical essays that has been written on Galien-Laloue. If you have more information to share, please e-mail us. Copyright, 2010-2011, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced in any form without the specific written permission of the author.