(Saint-Omer, 1827 – Paris, 1877)
Méharist, study for Pilgrims going to Mecca (1861)
Oil on canvas
Studio stamp lower right and lower left
61 x 50 cm
Related work: Pilgrims going to Mecca, Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Born in Saint-Omer in the north of France, the artist was raised by his mother, a widow since 1828. A wealthy, cultured woman, a talented miniaturist, she settled with his son in Metz, then in Paris. While continuing brilliant secondary studies, Belly developed an early passion for painting, under the influence of several painter friends of his mother. After a brief stint in Picot's studio, Belly became friends with the painters of the Barbizon school and in particular Constant Troyon. In 1850, Belly accompanied, as a draftsman, the scientific mission led by Caignart de Saulcy and Edouard Delessert in Palestine, aimed at studying the historical geography of the region. This is where Belly painted several of his most famous paintings, such as The Ruins of Baalbek (Saint-Omer, Musée de l'Hôtel Sandelin). In October 1855, Belly undertook a second trip to the East and stayed a year in Egypt. In April-May 1856, he returned to the Sinai desert with Narcisse Berchère. Between July and October 1856, he went up the Nile to Aswan, accompanied by the painters Edouard Imer, Berchère and Jean-Léon Gérôme as well as the sculptor Bartoldi. Léon Belly exhibited continuously at the Salon from 1853 until his death in Paris on March 24, 1877 at the age of 49. He was decorated with the Legion of Honor in 1862 by Emperor Napoleon III.
Our painting is a preparatory study for the camel rider on the left appearing in the masterpiece that made Belly famous when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1861 and entitled Pilgrims going to Mecca. The public is indeed particularly struck by the audacious effect produced by the long procession advancing towards the viewer. The jury was not mistaken, moreover, and Belly received for his Pilgrims a first-class medal, the highest reward.
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