A head by Piot is always pleasant to come upon in our galleries, and they have several times made their way to out shores (England). There is nothing meretricious about them; the model is always well chosen for something beside mere regularity of features. We become interested in the personality of the artist's sitters.
So wrote Clarence Clark in his Art and Artists of Our Time in 1905, highlighting the attractive powers of the figures by Étienne-Adolphe Piot. Piot’s images evoked the beautiful and feminine nature of the nineteenth century woman. He relied on his dark backgrounds to highlight the sitter, infusing the paintings with a mood created by the sitter’s facial expressions, whether it was a bashful smile, a glance over a shoulder, or a look of reserved dignity. Philip Hook describes this period of painting in his Popular 19th Century Painting (Woodbridge: Antique Collector’s Club, 1986) and explains that:
For the first time, large numbers of pictures were painted whose sole raison d’être was the depiction of such beauty; not so much in the form of specific portraiture, but more as an homage to feminine beauty in its own right…Painters of beauties spread their net far and wide, to lay before an eager public examples from many different nationalities and social classes…A new sort of feminine beauty was perceived to have been invented by Parisian painters from about 1860 onwards.
Piot did not restrict his imagery to the female form. He also completed many works with children, a significant development as childhood imagery became very popular at a time when people involved with the education of children began to question just what it meant to be a child. Piot’s work, in all of their delicate radiance nevertheless addressed many of the interests and desires prevalent during the nineteenth century.
Étienne-Adolphe Piot was born in Digoin, France, often mistaken for Dijon as both cities are located in the Bourgogne region of Eastern France. His birthdate is unknown. What writings are available on Piot, however few, note that he was born in 1850. These accounts may confuse his first Salon entry with his birth date, which, therefore, should be placed somewhere within the 1820s. Before his start at the Salon in 1850, Piot came to Paris and began studying under Léon Cogniet. Clarence Clark explains further that “Piot came to Paris with the rest of the ambitious ones, and found out Cogniet, the good teacher who, besides winning a sterling reputation for himself, helped so many young artists to a career.”
At the Salon of 1850, when he began exhibiting, Piot showed Portrait de l’Auteur; dessin (Portrait of the Artist; drawing). In the years before 1876 he exhibited under the name Adolphe Piot, though after 1876 he went by Adolphe, Adolphe-Étienne, and Étienne-Adolphe Piot. For the first nineteen years of his public career, he exhibited mainly female portraits of his specific patrons at the Salons. It was not until the 1870 Salon that Piot began to exhibit works outside of portraiture. Clarence Clark describes some of these titles, which range from Abandonée (The Abandoned), Coquetterie (Coquetry), and La Lettre (The Letter):
We find in the Salon catalogues a list of these fanciful titles, together with a number of portraits into which, as is easy to conjecture from the head we copy, the artist would put a mingled grace and sincerity of expression not always found in these works.
Throughout his entire Salon period he remained a pupil of Léon Cogniet. In 1883 he became a membe r of the Société des Artistes Français, and later became a Membre Perpétuel (life-time member). Piot also received an honorable mention in 1890 for his work submitted to the 1889 Exposition Universelle.
It is not known when Piot died, though his last Salon entry is most likely 1909. Either Piot died at a very old age, or he began his Salon career at a very young age. The length of his Salon entries is exhausting and creates a sense of mystery. Some intriguing questions remain to be answered. Was Étienne-Adolphe the son of Adolphe Piot? Was he exhibiting similar works and working under the same master? Any works pre-1876 would be attributed to Adolphe Piot, and those after 1890 can be attributed to Étienne-Adolphe Piot, if they are indeed two separate artists. The interim period is questionable as the artists, or artists, never exhibited together at one Salon, suggesting that it is, as history says, one artist, instead of two. But this sense of confusion in the names of the painter, and the possibility that he had a son who worked with him or who continued his style of creativity, awaits further clarification.
Regardless of these issues, works linked to the name of Adolphe Piot subscribe to the portrayal of the fashionable creation of childlike innocence, both in his youthful sitters and females alike. In this, even when depicting the lower classes, Piot infused his pictures with a sense of elegant humanity and picturesque refinement that appealed to bourgeois Aesthetic taste which was in the ascendancy during this part of the nineteenth century.