Signed lower right and dated : « JP. Laÿs. 1871 »
Label on the canvas : number « 313 » under which the painting was inscribed at the 1876 Beaux-Arts exhibition in Rouen:
Title inscribed on the back of the canvas: « le bien et le mal » with the artist’s address: « Sainte Hélène, 41, à Lyon »
The painting is a brilliant demonstration of Jean-Pierre Laÿs’ artistic success, one of the best representatives of the Lyon school of Flower Painting. The self-determination of this young shepherd from a small village in the Loire and his talent as a draftsman resulted in his spectacular social rise.
The career of Jean-Pierre Laÿs is bounded with that of the illustrious Lyon painter Simon Saint-Jean. At the age of sixteen, he worked for him as a servant. He grinned the color pigments, he learnt to prepare the painter’s canvases, took care of his pupils’ supplies and of the flowers which were used as models. The young man was trained as a watercolorist in exchange for work. Simon Saint-Jean was then at the height of his glory. He was the main leader in Flower Painting. His paintings drawn on the heritage of Flemish painters specialized in the genre such as Jan van Huysum and Gerard van Spaendonck. Simon Saint-Jean freed Flower Painting from the grip of the Lyon’s important silk industry. Jean-Pierre Laÿs pursued the same ambition to revaluate Flower Painting in art.
Jean-Pierre Laÿs’ painting is full of symbolic encounters between plants and small monuments referring to moral values which come out his religious piety. Good and Evil (Le Bien et le Mal) are represented by good and bad fruits weighed on a scale with the head of a lion surmounting a tomb. The painting metaphorically evokes the Final Judgment by God of all humanity. At the top, on the pediment of the funeral urn, the inscription in red letters on a carved stone book, opera illorum sequuntur illos, is taken from the Apocalypse of St. John the Apostle (Chapter 14, verse 13). The Christ promises to reward the beneficial actions made to others. The angel of the resurrection stands out on the illuminated wall of the tomb.
Among the types of good fruits are the Eucharistic symbols: the grapes for the sacramental wine and the ears of wheat for the sacramental bread. They are painted in the center of the composition among garnets and velvety-skinned peaches. On the lighter platform of the weighing scale, the thistles, the poppies and the spiky husks of the chestnuts - funeral fruits of All Saints’ Day - evoke Purgatory.
On the foreground, the vanquished evil snake shies away from the power of Good reinforced by the presence of immortals, violets and primroses, symbols of eternal life and hope of virtue. The design of the plants and the impeccable design of fruits suggest a long process of development to achieve such dramatic intensity. The variety of colors used testifies to Jean-Pierre Laÿs’ talent as a colourist.
The painting was exhibited at least four times in France and abroad. First in Lyon in 1872, where Alice Souchier admired this « allegory of a painter in love with the ideal » in her review of the Painting Section at the World and International Exhibition. The following year, Le Bien et le Mal was part of the official French selection of contemporary artworks exhibited at the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair. Then the painting was shown at the 1874 Paris Salon where Jean-Pierre Laÿs’ display was duly noted by Louis Gonse the editor-in-chief of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. Le Bien et le Mal was then considered as a « key work » in the painter's career. The same year, it was exhibited in Avignon at the Salon of the Société des Amis des Arts d’Avignon and in Rouen at the Fine Arts Salon. In 1876, the career of Jean-Pierre Laÿs was flourishing with an international scope. His paintings appeared so far at World’s fairs (in 1851 London, in 1855 Paris and in Geneva). He had received multiple awards at the salons in Lyon, Marseille, Dijon, Troyes, Nîmes and in Bayonne.
At the end of May 1877, the painting was bought by Auguste-Antoine Genin a wealthy connoisseur from Lyon, for the purpose of a donation to the Grenoble Museum. Eleven years later, it was exhibited in Charles Dusserre's Gallery, Place des Terreaux in Lyon. According to Jean-Pierre Laÿs’ biographer, Aimé Vingtrinier, its price was incredibly high and could only tempt one of those happy millionaires who did not know what to do with their fortune such as the painter Jean-François Millet’s works whose paintings were attaining yet staggering prices.
The compositions of Jean-Pierre Laÿs have always captivated art collectors by their degree of complexity and perfection. The painter who dedicated himself entirely to Flower Painting passed away at his home rue Sainte Hélène in Lyon, aged 62.
Estate of the artist
Acquired by Auguste-Antoine Genin in May 1877, for the purpose of a donation to the Grenoble Museum (cf. André Laÿs, Les Laÿs vus par un Laÿs, 1982, p. 130).
Collection of Charles Dusserre (art dealer based in Lyon) in 1888 (cf. Aimé Vingtrinier, Lays, peintre de fleurs, Lyon, H. Georg, 1889, p. 51-52, p. 80).
Lyon, World and International Exhibition, Palais Saint-Pierre, in 1872, n°69 Le Bien et le mal.
1873 Vienna World’s Fair, n°413 Das Gute un das Ueble (Obst).
Paris, Salon de peinture et de sculpture… in 1874, n°1108 : Le Bien et le Mal ; - les bons et les mauvais fruits.
Avignon, Exposition de la Société des Amis des Arts d’Avignon in 1876, n°111 : Le Bien et le Mal , représenté par les bons et les mauvais fruits.
Rouen, Exposition municipale des Beaux-Arts in 1876, n°313 : Le bien et le mal (les bons et les mauvais fruits)
Sketch in oil on cardboard, c. 1871, 33 x 25 cm, private collection, reproduced in black and white in Les peintres de l’âme : art lyonnais du XIXe siècle, Lyon, musée des Beaux-Arts, 1981, p. 183, n°90.
Large watercolor, private collection, reproduced in Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, « Simon Saint-Jean et le symbolisme végétal », Bulletin des Musées et Monuments lyonnais, 1977, n°4, planche 15.