"Boilly: Scenes of Parisian Life"
“Boilly: Scenes of Parisian Life” at the National Gallery in London was a small exhibition that re-introduced an important artist of one of the most turbulent years in French history. It centered upon 18 works by Louis-Leopold Boilly from the private collection assembled by British property developer and art collector Harry Hyams.
Boilly was born outside of Lille in 1761, the son of a wood carver. He showed a talent for drawing and painting at an early age. However, during the Ancient Regime, few doors were open to an artist with his background. Moving to Paris, where he was to spend most of his life, Boilly successfully developed a niche painting genre scenes often with a romantic or risque theme.
Two such works included in the exhibition were “Comparing Little Feet” and “Two Young Women Kissing.” The former depicts two young women comparing their legs while the latter shows two women in an amorous embrace.
This niche was almost Boilly's undoing. In 1794, during the Terror following the French Revolution, Boilly was denouned by a fellow artist before the infamous Committee of Public Safety for painting works inconsistent with the morals of the Revolution. He escaped the guillotine by creating a series of pro-Revolutionary works including one of Robespierre, who sat on the Committee of Public Safety.
The Revolution opened new doors for Boilly. First, the market for portraits expanded. Buyers were no longer limited to the aristocracy but grew to include members of the expanding middle class and the new nobility created after Napoleon declared himself emperor, which followed the Revolution. Boilly exploited this market by painting some 5,000 small portraits. He boasted that he could create such portraits in two hours. Included in the exhibition are Boilly's “Portrait of a Lawyer” and his “Portrait of the Comtesse François de Sainte-Aldegonde.”
In addition, at the turn of the 19th century, a market developed for genre paintings depicting life in Paris. Boilly pictured scenes with figures from all classes mixing on the streets of Paris. Like the work of William Hogarth in England, Boilly's pictures often had a subtle humorous side with a touch of social commentary. For example, “The Poor Cat” includes a child picking a pocket and a group of beggars along with the well-to-do strolling the street. “The Barrel Game” includes a man urinating against a wall.
Largely self-taught, Boilly did not confine himself to one medium but rather produced oil paintings, watercolors, drawings in ink, chalk and charcoal as well as lithographs. His style was very detailed. He sometimes used one medium to imitate anther such as his “Girl at A Window,” an oil painting that looks like a black and white print. Along the same lines, Boilly was interested in trompe-l’oeil painting.
Still, Boilly's importance is not based upon his style or technique. Rather, his importance lies in his ability to observe, record and sometimes comment upon the society in which he lived.
Above: Boilly, "Two Young Women Kissing".
Below: Boilly, “Portrait of the Comtesse François de Sainte-Aldegonde.”
Art review - National Gallery (London) - “Boilly: Scenes of Parisian Life"