France 1849 – 1934
Madame Roger Jourdain (Portrait of Mrs R. J...)
[Portrait de Mme R. J...] 1886
oil on canvas
canvas 200.0 (h) x 153.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift Mrs Roger Jourdain, the sitter 1921
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Besnard began his career at the conservative Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He was taught by the notoriously purist academic painter Alexandre Cabanel, whose infamous refusal to allow Edouard Manet to exhibit at the 1863 Salon led to the establishment of the Salon des Refusés.1 By 1868 Besnard was exhibiting at the Paris Salon. A sojourn in London from 1879 until 1881, where he studied the British portrait tradition and J.M.W. Turner, proved very influential on his work. On his return to Paris he received a number of portrait commissions from prominent members of France’s Third Republic.
Madame Roger Jourdain was the stand-out work of the 1886 Salon. Here Besnard combined orthodox academic traditions with the looser painterly elements of Impressionism, creating what he called an ‘environmental’ portrait. Rejecting idealisation and concentrated naturalism, Besnard focused instead on the sitters’ surroundings, which he believed to reflect their personalities and ‘express their relationship with the world in which they live’.2 Besnard captures the elegantly gowned society hostess Henriette Roger Jourdain (d.1928) in a minx-like yet graceful pose using two sources of light to create a theatrical atmosphere—the figure appears backlit by hazy blue moonlight, while her face and gown are illuminated by a yellowish-white glow from an artificial source.
Despite Besnard’s looser brushwork and treatment of colour and light, the Impressionists denied any affiliation with him, claiming he had simply stolen superficial elements from their style. Degas ridiculed Besnard’s attempts, saying: ‘yes, yes, he flies with our own wings [but] … he is a man who tries to dance with leaden soles’.3 The Symbolists, however, embraced Besnard’s fusion of styles—particularly his use of colour to denote mood—with Teodor de Wyzewa commending Madame Roger Jourdain as a ‘symphony of blues and whites’.4
Henriette and her artist husband Joseph lived on Paris’ Boulevard Berthier, surrounded by artists, writers and composers, including Besnard. She became a muse for many.
The annual Salon was the nineteenth-century equivalent of today’s tabloids. The public scrambled to see portraits of the famous faces of the day, and Henriette was one such figure. Throughout her life, scandalous allegations dogged her—many lovers, a morphine addiction, and finally her death from a sleeping pill overdose.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Wayne Andersen, ‘Manet and the Judgement of Paris’, ARTnews, vol. 72, no. 2, February 1973, p. 67.
- Besnard, quoted in John House and Maryanne Stevens, ‘France’, in Post-Impressionism: crosscurrents in European and American painting 1880–1906, Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art 1980, p. 57.
- Quoted by George Moore, Impressions and opinions, London: T. Werner Laurie 1913, p. 226.
- Teodor de Wyzewa, ‘Notes sur la peinture wagnérienne et le salon de 1886’, Revue wagnérienne, 8 May 1886, quoted in House and Stevens, p. 45.