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The Quirky French Genius of Louis-Léopold Boilly

"Laughing Man" Study for a self portrait. Chalk, early 1800's

Born July 5, 1761 Louis-Léopold Boilly was a prolific French portrait painter and draftsman. If there was ever an artist who whose biography would inspire a truly entertaining movie, Boilly would be the one. His career was active throughout the French Revolution and Napoleon, and yet his keen portrayal of the French middle class has a unique charm that makes him very likeable. As a draftsman, Boilly was one of a kind, probably better than his paintings, and his numerous oil sketches are excellent studies in themselves. Looking at his self-portrait above, you can instantly sense the vivacity and humor of this man without even reading a biography.

Paris Louvre boilly entree theatre
Entrance to a free show at the Ambigu-Comique Theatre, 1819

Here we can immediately grasp Boilly's brilliant sense of group composition, action and space. Boilly takes a horizontal arrangement of figures and groups them by foreground, middle and background. The foreground figures to the left are clearly of an upper-class, while the middleground figures just off-center to the right are fighting to enter the building. Note Boilly's use of body language: each character is defined by what they are doing. At the far right of the composition the figures are loosely grouped together yet he uses their arms as a compositional device to direct our eyes to the figure falling on the ground and the others who are up higher grabbing the support of the awning. Although it is not exactly clear what is happening we can safely deduce that the people fighting to get in are definitely not rich. Boilly uses movement and vivid colors to keep our eyes on the story unfolding in this simple scene with complex body language and implied lines. Boilly may have been a silly man but as an artist, he was clearly no fool.

Louis-Léopold Boilly - Game of Billiards - WGA02350
Game of Billiards, 1807

A subject that is rarely portrayed in art, billards became very popular during this era of France. Boilly uses perspective and a dramatic skylight to illuminate this scene, which interestingly is populated with several women...something we often don't see even in our times. Another recurring theme is the use of dogs, revealing Boilly's love of them. Although Boilly can be accused of having cartoony faces in many of his figures, with plenty of sentimentality in the portrayal of women and children, it is never cloying. Boilly is an astute observer of people and human nature. I think of him more as a visual writer than a painter. This painting is so simple yet the complexity of the facial expressions and personalities shows the amount of thought he put into this painting. The women are illuminated in glowing white tones, while the men are dark and mysterious. His use of green is a strong motif throughout this painting, leading our eye gracefully across the painting from left to right. Again, his grouping of figures is so intuitive we take it for granted. Look at how each group of figures is arranged not only by odd and even numbers, but also by subtle changes in direction contrast so as to not appear dull visually. Each group also has a clear intention to the story unfolding, and Boilly uses facial expression and hands to provide information to what each character is doing.

Paris carnavalet boilly conscrits
Departure of the Conscripts in 1807, 1808

Boilly's use of scale and color with light to tell his narrative are clearly inspiring here, and demonstrate his range as an artist who could move from intimate interiors like the billards scene to dynamic political historical subjects such as this drama unfolding. This arrangement of figures underneath the Porte St Denis in Paris clearly shows scale and epic narrative. Again, boilly's naturalism in his group compositions are so rich and informative. Although these particular characters have a more affected and theatrical appearance than his other works, Boilly makes up for it with dramatic use of chiaroscuro and color to lead our eye across the painting while simultaneously embracing the scale of the overall scene. Note how that narrow pool of light across the center of the composition adds such visual dimension to the painting. Boilly always cleverly uses emotion as a component in his groups, whether figures are embracing each other, talking amongst themselves, or greeting others, he is a consummate storyteller without words. Note how his palette has such variety of cools and warms across the painting, yet he always manages a strong color harmony that never distracts from the overall story.

Portrait of a Gentleman LACMA M.2003.197.2
Portrait of a Gentleman, 1800's

I love the immediacy of this formal portrait. Boilly is clearly no Rembrandt or Van Dyck...there is no penetrating psychological genius or brilliant brushstrokes here. However, he does capture the pure essence of this man without fussing, without extensive attention to his costume--the jacket clearly shows the underpainting underneath. Boilly gives us freshness and honesty. And that is more than many artists even today have trouble with.

I had the pleasure of seeing Boilly's oil studies at the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille and I was immediately inspired at how astute and natural he was at observing people. Although I didn't see alot of his original drawings I did see this study of a young man below, among others, and the incredible Trompe-l'œil of the coins on the table below, which is truly amazing to witness in person.

'Portrait of the Painter Jean-François van Dael, 1800's

Portraits of faces, 1800's

Louis-Léopold Boilly (French - Three Young Artists in a Studio - Google Art Project
Three Young Artists in a Studio, ca.1820

L-L Boilly Une loge
Une loge, un jour de spectacle gratuit, 1830

Lille PBA boilly gueridon
rompe l'œil aux pièces de monnaie sur le plateau d'un guéridon, 1814

So what can we learn from Boilly? His genius was in making the ordinary interesting, even amusing. No subject matter was too intense nor too silly for him. He seems to make effortless use of whatever he chooses. Boilly reminds us that life itself is art, that narrative can be found in the everyday, the middle or upper-class...and how we tell our story is the story. We are visual writers, not just "picture makers". Poetry is found in the moments we take for granted, and Boilly knew this intimately. Life is a range of emotion and attention and life reveals itself.


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