Born on 14 March 1836 in the small town of Tournan, Jules-Joseph Lefebvre grew up primarily in nearby Amiens where his father owned a bakery. Although he undoubtedly helped with the family business, the young Lefebvre’s artistic skills were evident at an early age. With his father’s support, he sought, and won, a five-year fellowship of 1000 francs annually from the City of Amiens. This enabled him to move to Paris in 1852 where he began his art education in the studio of Léon Cogniet, a neoclassical history painter. Although only 16 years old at the time, Lefebvre was soon admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Cogniet’s auspices. Within three years, in 1855, he made his debut at the annual Paris Salon.
Lefebvre’s success at the Ecole encouraged him to pursue the coveted Prix de Rome, which would fund his study at the French Academy in Rome. His 1859 entry for the competition resulted in a second place award, but two years later, he won the prestigious first place prize with his painting of The Death of Priam. The subject, based on Homer’s Illiad, reflected the profound influence of Lefebvre’s academic training. During his five-year sojourn in Rome, he expanded his understanding of both classical Roman culture and the Italian masters of the Renaissance, and he began to focus increasing attention on painting female nudes. The early years in Rome seem to have been a particularly lively time as well; the other French students included Léon Bonnat, Carolus-Duran, Tony Robert-Fleury, Jean-Jacques Henner, Jean-Paul Laurens, and Albert Giraud as well as their professor Léon Cogniet. The friendships formed here would last a lifetime.
Unfortunately, Lefebvre’s years in Rome were disrupted by the death of his parents and one of his sisters. Not surprisingly, such a significant loss sent him into a debilitating depression. By the time he returned to Paris in 1867, however, he had come to terms with his grief, and began to concentrate on establishing a career as one of France’s leading painters. This new determination met with immediate success at the 1868 Salon where Reclining Nude received critical kudos; his two 1869 submissions, Diana awakening and Portrait of Alexandre Dumas, were equally well received. The culmination of this public acclaim occurred in 1870 when Lefebvre’s painting of La Vérité (Truth) attracted rave reviews from both the critics and the public. The model was the well-known actress, Sophie Croizette, who was painted in the nude holding the shining globe of “truth” above her head. Later that year, his artistic contribution was recognized with the Legion of Honor award.
In light of the resounding triumph of La Vérité, Lefebvre continued to paint nude female figures, depicting Mary Magdalene (1876), Pandora (1877), Diana (1879), and Psyche (1883) and many others. Unlike William Bouguereau, his primary competitor in this arena, Lefebvre used a wide variety of models rather than just a few, a strategy that presumably broadened the potential audience for this type of painting. Lefebvre also solidified his reputation as a portrait painter during the 1870s, depicting both celebrities and wealthy bourgeois sitters. Over the course of forty years, he exhibited approximately 72 portraits at the Salon; such a prolific output not only ensured a continuing clientele, but also a consistent income.
Lefebvre’s contribution to the development of late nineteenth-century art also took the form of teaching. Beginning in 1870, he became a professor at the Académie Julian, founded in 1868 by Rodolphe Julian as an art school open to both women and men as well as to foreigners. The Académie Julian was especially important for women since they were not admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts until 1897. As noted in the 1999 catalogue of the Dahesh Museum’s exhibition, Overcoming All Obstacles: The Women of the Académie Julian, the female students’ respect for Lefebvre was legendary. He was perceived as a mentor who could provide practical advice about succeeding in the world of galleries, dealers and salon exhibitions as well as more traditional instruction in art. [i]
Like all academically trained artists, Lefebvre emphasized the importance of drawing as the foundation for painting, and encouraged his students to hone their skills by constantly sketching from live models. A description of his own process from the Salon of 1894 might well be an echo of the directions he offered students. “Nothing in nature is ever exactly the same, not even two leaves from the same tree. Monsieur Lefebvre, taking this rule as his guiding principle, finds a fresh approach in every portrait he undertakes. For him, no one person resembles another. He varies his approach with every model according to the inspiration offered by the model.” [ii]
Following the horror of the Paris Commune in 1871, Lefebvre moved his studio to 5 Rue de la Bruyère at edge of Montmartre, not far from the Académie Julian. This location was also reasonably close to the elegant apartments—filled with fledgling art collectors—lining the grand boulevards constructed during Haussmann’s renovation of Paris in the 1860s. Lefebvre’s professional success only expanded during the last quarter of the century. In 1878, he received a First Class medal at the Salon, and in 1886, he won the Medal of Honor. At the extravaganza of the 1889 Exposition Universelle celebrating France’s centennial as a republic, he won the Grand Prix award. Two years later, at age 55, he was named a member of the Institut de France, the governing body of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. As John Milner noted in The Studios of Paris, appointment to the Institut was reserved for only fourteen painters, whose responsibility was to ensure a level of professionalism “which militated against amateurism.” [iii] From his unpretentious origins as a baker’s son, Lefebvre achieved unimagined success as a painter. His career was crowned in 1898 when he was named a commandeur of the Legion of Honor. He died in Paris on 25 Feburary 1911 at age 78.
Janet Whitmore, Ph.D.
Selected Museum Collections:
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Harvard University Art Museum
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Joslyn Art Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska
Musée de Lyon
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires
[i] Jane Becker and Gabriel P. Weisberg, editors. Overcoming All Obstacles: The Women of the Académie Julian. (New York; Dahesh Museum, 1999), 38-39.
[ii] Gustave Haller. Le Salon, Dix ans de peinture Salon de 1894. (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1902). 173.
[iii] John Milner. The Studios of Paris: The Capital of Art in the Late Nineteenth Century. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988). 9.