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C.L.Cabaillot-Lassalle : Reading in the boudoir

Luxury, calm and pleasure in a 19th century bourgeois version


Camille Léopold Cabaillot-Lassalle (1839-1888)
Reading in the boudoir, 1874
Oil on wood
47 x 31 cm
AM 1179
Legs de Mme Lucette Bertrand, 2017

This painting is the first work by the French artist in our collections, where it completes a series of other bourgeois portraits. 

Cabaillot-Lassalle was strongly inspired by the social milieu in which he lived, by the elegant and elaborate fashion of the Belle-Époque under the Second Empire. He specialised in genre scenes of interiors, depicting young bourgeois women and their offspring in their domestic activities. From 1864 to 1889 he participated in the Paris Salon, one of the most fashionable events in the European social calendar, a mecca for "seeing and being seen" and a source of visual inspiration for Cabaillot-Lassalle.

These depictions of refined interiors, both intimate and social, were extremely popular in the second half of the 19th century in Europe and the United States. Individual and family portraits were commissioned by high society, as the Belle Époque was the golden age of the bourgeoisie, a relatively peaceful and stable period between the great European nations, with many innovations in industry and technology further improving the standard of living of high society.

But this is a genre painting, Cabaillot-Lassalle is not a portraitist of individuals: a figure skilfully encased in the triangle of a dress of graceful light drapery against a dark background, a radiant profile and a set of fine hands, the subject is decidedly subordinated to the colour and contours, emotion thus deriving from form and not the other way round. We are faced with the portrait of a dress, a sumptuous mass of fabric and embroidery. The subject is the Woman as a generic and not a natural woman - her model is a fixed and frozen mannequin which the artist uses above all for the deployment of her skilful variations on historiated femininity. This style is the heir to the Dutch masters of the 17th century, of whom Vermeer is the most talented representative in terms of his narrative undertones. The collections of the Museum of Fine Arts include a whole series of artists who continued this tradition in the 19th century, including Jean-François Portaels, Florent Willems, Joseph Stallaert and above all Alfred Stevens. 

Cabaillot-Lassalle's work is closely related to that of his Belgian contemporary Stevens, the most successful painter of the Parisian bourgeoisie. Although the textures of the fabrics are of a more modest character in Cabaillot-Lassalle's work, described with less subtlety and detail, there is nevertheless the same attention to the rendering of the hands, the opulence of the interior depicted, the atmosphere of luxury expressed by the tapestries, furniture and clothes. 

The Reading in the Boudoir has a little sister, as Cabaillot-Lassalle reproduced it in another painting from the same year, entitled Dans son boudoir, belonging to the former Bernheimer collection, sold in November 2015 at Sotheby's in London. A figure of style, the painting within a painting is a motif with emblematic value appreciated by artists. Cabaillot-Lassalle's facetious little game, a wink from the painter to his own glory, in the form of a shameless repetition of the same idea.

Despite the success of the genre, the repetition of idealised Belle-Époque atmospheres also met with criticism, notably in the 1874 Salon review by Ernest Duvergier de Hauranne: "Genre painting is overabundant, and is exhausted by this very overabundance [. ...] It is not talent or spirit that is lacking, but ideas, not new ideas, but sincere, serious ideas, original by that very fact, ideas heated by a true passion and thought out by the one who expresses them. Between the refinement of chiaroscuro and the luxurious grace, the bogging down in the frivolities and excesses of fashionable mawkishness, Cabaillot-Lassalle thus walks a tightrope. The feeling of a dead end, of a lack of artistic renewal, was expressed that same year, 1874, at an exhibition mounted in reaction to the official Salon and the conservative choices of its jury, which took place in the former studio of the photographer Nadar and where Claude Monet presented his painting Impression, soleil levant.


Camille Léopold Cabaillot-Lassalle                                Alfred Stevens
in her boudoir, 1874                                                      The rest of a child
Oil on wood                                                                   Oil on wood
56 x 39 cm                                                                     80 x 54 cm
Ancienne collection Bernheimer                                    Collection du Musée des Beaux-Arts de Liège


Carmen Genten - Curator at Grand Curtius