Zélia LENOIR (Paris, 1842 – 1919)
The courtyard of the mulberry tree at the Imperial School of Fine Arts in Paris
Oil on canvas
Signed with initials and dated ‘1866’ lower left. Located ‘École des Beaux Arts’ lower right
89 x 65 cm
Exhibition: 1866, Salon of Paris, under the number 1205
Related work: The Orsay Museum owns the watercolour depicting the same view
The courtyard of the mulberry tree at the School of Fine Arts is the former cloister of the convent of Petits-Augustins, founded by the Queen Margot in the early seventeenth century. At the end of the French Revolution, the monastery is turned into the Museum of French Monuments, whose direction is entrusted to the young painter Alexandre Lenoir (1761-1839). In 1816, the Museum is closed by Louis XVIII and turned into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts; architects François Debret (1777-1850) and his brother and pupil Félix Duban (1797-1870) decided to make an Italianate buildings and neoclassical palace.
The courtyard of the mulberry tree, which is named after the mulberry tree from China planted there by Alexandre Lenoir, is to the right of the school’s main courtyard from the Rue Bonaparte; Félix Duban gave him in 1836 the pace of a Pompeian atrium, in particular implanting a central fountain. The walls of the covered gallery are decorated with a replica of the Parthenon frieze, which can be seen through the arches.
The date of execution of our painting is in the short period (1864-1870) in which the School is called “Imperial”, after “Royale” and before becoming “National”.
Zelia Flore Lenoir was the granddaughter of Alexandre Lenoir and the daughter of Albert Lenoir (1801-1891), which therefore makes her particularly linked to the history of the School of Fine Arts. His father, almost born in the former Museum of French Monuments, integrated the School of Fine Arts in 1820, taught there from 1856 as substitute of Hippolyte Lebas, and was appointed Permanent Secretary in 1862; he occupied in 1869 the architectural history professorship.
This dynastic lineage could only direct her towards an artistic activity, and we can find in the Orsay Museum different drawings made by her at the age of 14; like his father, she is a traveling artist who designs the places she stays or she visits: Normandy (Trouville in 1856, Veules les Roses in 1857, Jersey in 1869, Honfleur regularly between 1900 and 1912), Britain (Vitre in 1865, Saint-Malo in 1908), Nord Pas-de-Calais (Cayeux in 1866, Ypres in 1871, Berck in 1912), the southwest (Eaux-Bonnes in 1913), Burgundy and Franche-Comté (Clamecy in 1919 Mijoux in 1867) …
Pupil of his father and A. Bernard, she participated in 1866 in what appears to be her only official exhibition, where she is presented as resident at the Palace of Fine Arts.
In 1874, she married the architect Louis-François-Philippe Boitte (1830, Paris – 1906, Fontainebleau), who had worked some years earlier with his father, and became chief architect of the palace of Fontainebleau in 1877 (an exhibition was consecrated to his work at Orsay in 1989, including drawings made in Greece and Italy in the early 1860s).
We know from Louis Boitte a lot of studies, pencil, wash or oil (stored at the Orsay Museum), with subject the courtyard of the mulberry tree, one of them has exactly the same point of view and framing that the composition of his wife; these drawings, which seem to have been made around 1886, open the question of mutual influence between the two artists.
With this painting, Zelia Lenoir produced a work that could almost be dated at first of the 1820s; there actually emanates a mixture of “troubadour” spirit and architectural views that could be achieve at this time by painters like Bouhot Etienne and Jean-Lubin Vauzelle for examples.
Some monumentality is discernible, due to the absence of particular characters and framing the arch (in the minds of those of Louis-Pierre Baltard), softened by the calming presence of the fountain.