Georges Clairin (Paris, 1843 – Belle-Ile-en-Mer, 1919)
59 1?2 by 35 3?4 in, oil on original canvas
Signed lower left: G. Clairin
Inscribed on the back of the canvas in ink the name of the French artists’ supplies firm: Hardy- Alan, au 36 rue du Cherche Midi à Paris.
Label on the back of the supporting frame Van Vechten - Lineberry Taos Art Museum (New Mexico): Portrait of an Actress, c. 1882, 60 x 35 inches, oil on canvas, donated by: E. C. Lineberry.
Duane Van Vechten (1898-1977) & Edwin C. Lineberry (1912-2002), El Rancho de la Mariposa (Butterfly Ranch) Taos, New Mexico.
Gifted by Edwin C. Lineberry to the Van Vechten – Lineberry Taos Art Museum in 1994, New Mexico (United-States).
Georges Clairin’s work is unique, it cannot be reduced to a style or a precise genre of painting. The painter was so talented that he produced portrait paintings, history paintings, orientalist scenes as well as mural decorations for opera and theaters. Georges Clairin’s artworks remain notable for their finely observed and executed detail. He created attractive images of larger than life characters precisely as the portrait of Frou Frou.
Froufrou is the title of a dramatic comedy written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, the authors of the librettos of Jacques Offenbach. It was first performed at the theater of the Gymnase in Paris on October 30, 1869. Froufrou is the nickname of Gilberte Brigard, the heroine of that play. It comes from the charming rustling sound of her silk dresses in motion. Froufrou’s changing attitude is ambiguous while she is going through the episodes of life sometimes with the dilettantism of the Parisian youth or worried about being appropriate. Sarah Bernhardt the most famous actress of her
time and close friend of the painter was the perfect
interpreter to embody this character. From June 1880, she
performed as Froufrou during a European tour of England,
Belgium and Denmark, in preparation for the French tour of
twenty-five performances which began in September. Sarah
Bernard played Froufrou again at the Théâre de la Porte-
Saint-Martin in September 1883. The part of Froufrou was
one of Sarah Bernhardt’s greatest personal successes. She
perfectly embodied the eccentric Parisian. Seven costume
changes were planned for the great tragedian. The Parisian
public was won over by her interpretation: “in Froufrou, she
makes us tremble and cry at the same time ... in this
succession of acts where the heroine must be alternately
actress and tragedian, sometimes frivolous, petulant, capricious and light, sometimes serious, touching, violent and carried away.”1 Sarah Bernhardt perfectly embodied the ingenuous Parisian of the 1880s. As the dramatic critic Francisque Sarcey explained if in a hundred years, we still want to know the habits of these ladies, we will look at Froufrou who belongs to the gallery of theatrical heroines alongside Ophelia, Sylvia, Rosine or Henriette, “who all smell the life of the models and the thumb of the artist who observes. ”
The character of Froufrou made a strong impression on Georges Clairin, intimate friend and appointed portrait painter to Sarah Bernhardt who enjoyed staging herself at all time. At the 1876 Paris Salon, Georges Clairin exhibited a bewitching portrait of Sarah Bernhardt member of the Comédie Française in a white satin dress at her place rue de Fortuny. The painting was very well-received. Sarah Bernhardt was renowned for her elegance and for the beauty of her costumes on stage as in everyday life. White was her favorite color. A journalist of Le Gaulois described one her white costumes made for a ball in 1880 looking so close to the one Froufrou is wearing.
The present painting is directly inspired from Meilhac and Halevy’s comedy and from Sarah Bernhardt’s part as the heroine. It represents Froufrou in a white ball gown referring to another painting that the artist exhibited at the 1882 Paris Salon des Artistes Français (n °580). When the 1882 painting was exhibited, it encountered a phenomenal success. Art-critics wrote about the “delicious Froufrou.”3 They admired the “pretty modern accent”4 of both the character and the brushwork. They praised the artist’s style for its “great delicacy of tones and infinitely technical skill.”5 In his 1882 Salon-Chronicle journalist Louis Enault devoted two full pages to Froufrou, evoking the sensuality of the model:
“I challenge you, when she passes by, not to turn your head. The bodice bursts, the skirt bubbles, the baskets swell and the croup wriggles.”
The painter skillfully took advantage of a subject intended to entertain: “This Froufrou sounds like a Clairin’s victory.”
Georges Clairin won a 3rd class medal for his display at the 1882 Salon and the painting was quickly popularized through the printed image made by Charles Koepping, which flooded the art market. Success pushed Georges Clairin to paint other versions of this dazzlingly young Parisian.
In addition to the present painting, Clairin painted a third version of Froufrou wearing a pink cape. Nowadays, The original painting is only known through an engraving called Pierrette since her conical shape hat is similar to that of the Carnival Pierrots. Pierrette is a theater character evolving in front of a stage curtain. Pierrette is very much related to the theatrical world, as the version of the 1882 Paris Salon.
This is precisely what sets apart these last two versions from the present painting which is more seemingly a life-size portrait of an elegant woman posing in her luxurious living room. The young woman with her direct gaze exhibits her keen sense of fashion. Grey furbelows, white satin ribbons, lace and pearls cover a perfectly draw woman’s body. Clairin painted a fancy costume, chiefly in tones of white and with elaborate texture. Her overcoat is placed on a gilded wooden pedestal table whose sinuous lines recall the Rococo woodwork, the fireplace and its trumeau. The interior is furnished according to the taste for XVIIIth-century furniture. The painter played with undulating lines to seduce the viewer.
The beauty of the model is reminiscent of the figures of women that Georges Clairin painted at the same time for the murals at the Eden-Théâtre, 7 rue Boudreau in Paris. The resemblance is striking with the sketched face of the central figure of the Char de la Dance. The original sketch was given by Georges Clairin to Jean Alboize to illustrate his article on Clairin’s decorative paintings for the Eden-Théâtre. Studio model or dancer, Georges Clairin chose this young woman who best embodied the female type of her time.
This serie of paintings representing Froufrou and Pierrette commands admiration because of the exceptional qualities of Clairin’s painting which: “can be tried out if necessary on vaporous and playful subjects with the confidence of the hand of a Watteau, a Fragonard or a Lancret.”
The image of this elegant Parisian won over a couple of American collectors, Duane Van Vechten (1898-1977) and Edwin C. Lineberry (1912-2002). Duane grew up in a wealthy, well- cultured family. She studied at the Art Institute in Chicago and at the Art Students League in New York City to become a painter. Her uncle Carl Van Vechten was a famous writer and photographer, active patron of the Harlem Renaissance. Duane and her family used to travel to New Mexico every summer where she moved from 1941 with her husband a former student at the New York Institute of Photography. Together they traveled the world and formed a collection of paintings including works of the founding members of the Taos Society of Artists. After the death of his wife, Edwin C. Lineberry opened a museum in their Taos residence, El Rancho de la Mariposa, in 1994, until its merger with the Nicolai Fechin Institute, in 2003.