François-Auguste Biard could justifiably be accorded more elevated status in the French Romantic pantheon, so thoroughly emblematic is he of his time: he was an adventurer whose travels took him to the ends of the earth; his prodigiously varied output fulfilled one of the great Romantic aesthetic aspirations with its rejection of the hierarchy of genres; when his private life went explosively public it was because his wife had been caught in bed with Victor Hugo; and if Baudelaire scorned him as a painter, Musset, Mérimée and Gautier most certainly did not. Biard spared no effort: popular in France, he also conquered the English market and managed to stay in the public eye until the end – even if his home city had no time for him.
Although trained in Lyon, where he exhibited regularly all his life, this ephemeral pupil of Révoil and Richard broke with the local school too early for there to be any grounds for identification with it. For him the prospects Lyon offered were too limited, and after gaining attention at the Salon in Paris in 1824 he yielded to the lure of the open sea and in 1827 toured the Mediterranean aboard the training corvette La Bayadère. In 1839 he did wonders for his legend by joining the expedition to Spitzbergen and Lapland headed by the naturalist Paul Gaimard. Léonie d’Aunet, whom he married the following year, published a book about the expedition in 1854, while Biard himself had used it as the subject matter for pictures like Magdalena Bay. Effet d'aurore boréale (Salon of 1840, Musée du Louvre; decoration of the
Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle) that triggered the "boreal exoticism" vogue.
His travels in Brazil in 1858–1860 were doubtless the most influential of all. After subjugating the country's civilised side by becoming friends with Emperor Pedro II and founding an art academy in Rio de Janeiro, he took to the wilds, sailing up the Amazon and "accomplishing real or imaginary exploits." Ill with fever, he bade farewell to the emperor and headed for the United States for a further look at the slavery he had explored ten years before in the painting L'Abolition de l'esclavage dans les colonies françaises en 1848 (Versailles, Musée National du Château). His entire oeuvre is marked by endless inventiveness and a search for novel, extraordinary and colourful subjects.
Le Bedeau ivre (The Drunken Beadle) is in the burlesque vein which, along with the ethnographic genre, ensured Biard's considerable popularity: "[He] knows there's a crowd waiting each year for some droll composition," a journalist remarked in 1847. The loss of the original title makes it difficult to understand this comic scene in toto, but while the origin of the putrid odour that has the background figures holding their noses remains unknown, it would seem that the chaos in the sacristy is due to the drunken beadle – wearing the standard clerical soprana and biretta – whose collapse has not interrupted his aping of a priest delivering a sermon. In another composition (ill. 1), the second act of an ongoing comedy, the priest is vigorously condemning the sin of his reckless subordinate before a congregation of the dismayed and the outright mirthful. The range of facial expressions and grimaces this farce offers Biard is in the tradition of Louis-Léopold Boilly – with a sense of fun added in.
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