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Jehan Georges Vibert --The Diet, private collection
The Diet, late 1800's

Jehan Georges Vibert was an Academic painter from France born in Paris on September 30, 1840. A contemporary of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Vibert would also find himself at the École des Beaux-Arts where he studied under François-Édouard Picot, who also taught artists such as Cabanel and Bouguereau. Where the breadth of Gérôme's interests and subject matter crossed into many different areas, Vibert had a seemingly insatiable appetite for sarcasm and wit, especially in his anticlerical work. Had he widened his oeuvre we may have seen an incredible eye on humanity, yet ironically within his narrow range he still managed to create insightful and stunningly vivid works that challenge our everyday notions on religion and society. And he did it often with subtle humour, a rare thing in art.

In The Diet above, Vibert shows a cleric eating milk and biscuits in what is clearly someone who needs to drop a few pounds. Look at the attention to drapery here. Vibert made it look easy. Seeing some of his work in person, I can attest to the very small brushes he used to achieve these detailed effects as his paintings are often not as large as one might think. I love the complementary green and red here to illustrate appearances versus guilty pleasure. Vibert goes out of his way to depict the hypocrisy of wealth and posture of the clerics in France, yet with a wit that brings a smile to our faces. Vibert also breezes through architectural details as if not a challenge, including the ornate shiny floor with subtle reflections and shadows. We all know someone who goes out of their way to make a point: Vibert was one of those artists.

Brooklyn Museum - An Embarrassment of Choices, or A Difficult Choice (Un Embarras du Choix) - Jehan-Georges Vibert - overall
A Difficult Choice (Un Embarras du Choix), 1873

Look at the soft light falling here, and the gradation to shadow towards the right of the painting. Again, the complementary green and red is here, but in a much different context. The architectural details are superb and illustrate the wealth of this elder cleric, leaning on his cane, quietly examining this bouquet of flowers in an elegant vase almost as tall as he is. It is the reflection in the mirror beside him that shows the room and himself in shadow, conveying a cynical image indeed of religion. Note the small scattered petals on the floor, which is again highly polished with a geometric design. This also seems to be a commentary on age vs youth or beauty, something a cleric would not normally be concerned with, but here he is more human than cleric. Vibert's storytelling abilities go far beyond what most writers can do, and so much we can learn from.

Jean GeorgesVibert ThePreeningPeacock
The Preening Peacock, late 1800's

Pride is one of the seven deadly sins, and here this cleric is unabashedly strutting his stuff in full glorious uniform, with the exact expression of smugness on his face. Note the soft shadows of the trees behind him. Instead of complementary color contrast, Vibert makes this priest a spectacle amongst a serene setting. The meaning is quite clear. The peacock behind the cleric is natural, while this supposedly holy man attempts to supersede all humanity and nature, wearing his medalions like a soldier of some sort. Vibert is questioning the role of religion in society and how its importance is largely man-made. Nature and philosophy take a backseat to religion, which tries to keep up its appearance to others. It's not hard to see how this type of art would have been offensive to those in the Church. Vibert's tongue is as sharp as his brush.

Jehan Georges Vibert Tea for the Bishop
Tea for the Bishop, late 1800's

A much simpler composition here. Vibert however does use complementary colors again, this time yellow and purple in the robe and board behind him. This cleric is looking quite comfy here, and he has three pillows underneath his feet and one behind his head as he awaits his afternoon tea from his servant. Interestingly, Vibert subdues the architecture and instead makes the area rug beneath them a focal point. Sloth appears to be the sin of this priest, as he most likely is capable of getting his own tea without the need for four pillows. Vibert is telling us that the role of a cleric is like any other job in the sense that they themselves may not always practice or believe what they preach, and in this case the priest seems grumpy about how long it has taken for the tea to arrive. Curiously, Vibert portrays him as an undignified man slumped in his chair in contrast to what we normally associate in mass as someone standing tall and speaking eloquently to the congregation. Having closed books around him is a symbol of a closed or narrow mind, and the dark space above them seems to echo this sentiment.

The Serenade by Jehan Georges Vibert
The Serenade, late 1800's

This painting reminds me very much of Messionier and Adrien Moreau, it is both humourous and sad at the same time. A young musician plays a familiar tune while an old man listens, clutching a guitar case and umbrella, scrunched up inside a derelict fountain with broken flower pots and autumn leaves underneath. Vibert makes a biting commentary on nostalgia and longing. The young man is looking upward to someone else on a balcony, (hopefully lovelier and female) yet this old man is literally stuck in a place that he doesn't belong in. Vibert signed his initials on the old man's guitar case, perhaps tongue-in-cheek or any rate it speaks volumes on the folly of yearning for youth and not knowing where you are in life. Social commentary is powerful, and Vibert honed this sharper than any other artist of his day.


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