Paul DU BOIS
Portrait de Mme. X, ca. 1892
145 x 200 mm
Signed lower right 'Paul Du Bois'
Verso illegibly inscribed
Private Collection, France
The work has kindly been authenticated by Mme. Danielle Du Bois and will be recorded in her archives.
Click image to enlarge
Paul Du Bois, born in Aywaille in 1858, played a significant role in the renewal of Belgian sculptural practices at the end of the 19th Century. He studied at the Brussels Academy under Eugène Simonis and later worked in the atelier libre of Charles Van der Stappen. In 1884, Du Bois made his debut with Hippomène, which won him the prestigious Prix de Godecharle. In the same year Paul Du Bois became a founding member of Les Vingt (Les XX), an exhibition body that would grow to become one of the leading European avant-garde groups at the end of the 19th Century. He would also be a regular exhibitor at its successor La Libre Esthétique. In 1888, Paul Du Bois opened an Atelier Libre together with Guillaume Van Strydonck and in 1894 another with his close friend Georges Lemmen. Also in 1894, he was named Chevalier in the Ordre of Leopold. Du Bois was appointed professor of sculpture at the Académie des Beaux-Arts de Mons in 1900, and in 1901 he was assigned to the Brussels Academy. In 1910 Du Bois succeeded Charles Van der Stappen as professor of sculpture at the School of Decorative Arts. He was commissioned many public monuments, among which the monument to Frédéric de Mérode in 1897 (a cooperation with Henry Van de Velde). His oeuvre is eclectic and diverse, spanning the range of statues, medals, and even household ware in Art Nouveau style.
The rediscovery of the presented bas-relief is a significant addition to Paul Du Bois’ known body of works. At first glance this bronze plaque brings to mind Du Bois’ “Femme Assise, portrait de Alice Sèthe” , which the artist exhibited with great success in 1893 at the Exposition des XX. With this work in mind Octave Maus stated:
“Dans les travaux où il se laisse aller à sa fantasie, Paul Du Bois est surtout sollicité par l’élégance féminine. Son type préféré parait être celui de la Jeune femme assise, à l’expression calme et ferme tout à la fois, la douceur du regard tempérant énergie presque virile des traits.” (Octave Maus, in: Les XX et la Libre Esthétique: cent ans après, Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque, Brussel : 1993, p. 426)
Like the buste of Irma Sèthe, these works are grounded in real portraits while soon becoming universally attractive. Where Du Bois’ sculptural and monumental output is well documented, a lot of his bas-reliefs are still to be rediscovered. Even though they were an extensive and important part of his output, like his Art Nouveau objects d’art, they were easily accessible for a divers range of collectors and as such disappeared into private collections around Europe.
A critic of L’Art Moderne would stress in an article on the Salon de La Libre Esthétique:
“En ses petits bas-reliefs, M. Paul Du Bois affirme de solides qualités de métier et une élégance particulière.” (L’Art Moderne, 15 Mars 1896)
It is certainly not the only time Paul Du Bois has been credited with a classical elegance. Paired with modern subject matter and techniques his semi-classical style gave way to a large group of admirers, from his friends and avant-garde artists of Les XX to the purchasing committee of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts.
In the course of the 1880s, bas-reliefs (an intrinsically classical style) gained a new importance in the sculptural innovations of the day. Avant-garde sculptors as Constantin Meunier and Alexandre Charpentier, who happened to have been both invités at Les XX and close friends of Du Bois, used the bas-relief technique for sculptures in a great variety of scales. From the monumental to commemorative medals the bas-relief greatly influenced the development of sculpture into the twentieth century. Partly because of Du Bois’ exploits in bas-reliefs, a critic from L’Art Moderne stated that Paul Du Bois was “le plus vaillant de la jeune école de sculpture” (L’Art Moderne, 30 October 1887).
If we should try to connect the presented bas-relief to exhibited works by Du Bois, it should be found in the first half of the 1890s. No generic nor poetic titles of bronze bas-reliefs that clearly relate to a liberated woman, seated and smoking her cigarette, are to be found in his exhibition history. It seems therefore rather logic, that this bas- relief represented a female portrait in the first place; as is the case with the buste of Irma Sèthe. Five works seem to be in the running for this attribution:
- Bronze bas-relief of Mme. Eugène Ysaye (Les XX, 1891)
- Bronze bas-relief of Mme. B. (Les XX, 1892)
- Bronze bas-relief of Mme. D. (Les XX, 1892)
- Bronze bas-relief of Mme. W. (Les XX, 1893)
- Bronze bas-relief of Mlle. de Mévius (Munich, 1894; Libre Esthetique, 1895)
Even though, on today, it does not seem possible to give a clear and convincing answer to this question, an approximate date can be established. In the first extensive academic study on Paul Du Bois, Anne Massaux explains that the “Exposition des XX de 1892 confirme son talent comme portraitiste”. Due to the extensive amount of bas-relief portraits exhibited in 1892, we can safely say this technique was an important factor in Du Bois’s renown as a portraitist. It is also the case that Paul Du Bois liked to figure people from his close environment for such small scale works. An identification of the seated figure as a daughter from the Sèthe family seems as such not impossible.
Around 1895 the phenomenon of the “Femme Nouvelle” or New Woman takes Europe by storm. Riding bicycles in adapted men’s clothing and smoking cigarettes, they were the mascottes of a new and increasingly powerful woman liberation front. The “liberated woman” became a fundamental symbol in Art Nouveau aesthetics and was essential in the formation of the modern concept of the “Femme Fatale”. The bronze bas-relief here presented dates from this period in which the role of the woman in society was heavily challenged, and constitutes with this subject an intrinsically modern work of art.