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Biography -Henry Lerolle


Henry Lerolle, by Albert Besnard, 1869, drawing, BNF, Département des Estampes et de la Photographie

Henry Lerolle was born on October 4, 1848, in his family home, 1 Rue de Foin, near the Place des Vosges. He was the second son of Timothée Lerolle, a bronze manufacturer, engraver and a landscape painter, and of Adèle-Edmée Delaroche, daughter of a Parisian engineer and a prosperous supplier of “housing heaters”. The paternal grandfather, Jean-Baptiste, born in 1789, came from a family of laborers from Lorraine, who became blacksmiths, and then artisan founders. Confident that he could successfully promote his craft  in Paris, he moved to the capital in 1814 to set up shop as “founder in bronze.”

The Lerolle family belonged to that middle class of the new industrial bourgeoisie, closely tied to the economic development of the country. Timothée an Adèle-Edmée  had six sons, four of whom died in their very early months. The two eldest, Paul and Henry, received a deeply religious education, marked by respect for the classics. They began their schooling with the Frères des Ecoles Chrétiennes, then as students in the Collège de Sainte-Marie at Ternes and later in the Petit Séminaire de Notre Dame des Champs.

The Lerolle family liked to travel. With their parents, the children discovered Lyon, the Alps (Grenoble, the Grande Chartreuse, the Grand Saint Bernard pass), Italy and the Val d’Aosta, Switzerland and Zermatt, as well as Marseille, between the Mount Sainte-Victoire and the massif of the Sainte-Baume, at Saint-Zacharie, the home of Léon, Jean-Baptiste’s fourth son and their father’s brother. Henry stayed there often. Saint Zacharie was the place of retreat for Sainte Madeleine and the Saintes Maries de la Mer, a locality awash with the light that Cézanne would celebrate, as one of those places where the spirit breathes.

Artistic training

Henry Lerolle, around 1880, photograph by Godet, Musée d’Orsay, Documentation


Brought up in a family where music played a major role, Henry Lerolle was very young when he began to study the violin with Edouard Colonne (1838-1873). He played this instrument with talent throughout his entire life. Although he became a painter, he nevertheless declared, “that I could have lived without painting but definitely not without music.”

When he was sixteen, Henry Lerolle entered in the studio of a former student of Ingres, Louis Lamothe, who taught many artists of this generation, including Edgar Degas. One of Lerolle’s first works, Chevreuils en Forêt (Deer in the Forest), was accepted at the official Salon in 1868. Afterwards, he studied at the Académie Suisse, where he befriended Albert Besnard.

In the Louvre, he copied Poussin, Rubens, and Veronese, crossing paths with Manet, Regnault, and Forain. At this time, he admired the work of Hippolyte Flandrin and Puvis de Chavannes.

In the autumn of 1871, after the Commune insurrection, Paul and Henry went on a pilgrimage to Notre Dame de la Délivrande in the Calvados, near Houlgate, a popular sea-shore for Parisian bourgeois at the time and to the family chalet of their grandfather, Jean-Baptiste. There, as an adolescent, Henry had made the acquaintance of Berthe Morisot, with whom he had enjoyed to set out to paint from nature. Later that year, the two brothers continued their trip up through Belgium and Holland. Going from cathedrals to monasteries, they did not neglect the museums, where Henry marveled at the Flemish and Dutch masters, the light and the skies of the North.

Paul developed a profound faith, which would lead him to become a fervent political fighter for the Catholic cause in his terms as city councilor and then as representative elect of the Parliament of Paris. As a man of tolerance for which honesty, justice and art were supreme values, Henry’s proclivity was to stand wary of all dogmatic positions.

Henry married Madeleine Escudier, also an accomplished musician, on February 8, 1876, and soon after settled at 20 Avenue Duquesne in the newly urbanized neighborhood on the left bank, not far from his parents, who had lived at 10 Avenue de Villars since 1861. Four children were born from their union: two girls, Yvonne and Christine, born respectively in 1877 and 1879, then two boys, Jacques and Guillaume, born in 1880 and 1884.

Beginning of his career

Henry Lerolle, In the Country, Salon of 1880, Paris, 2,65 x 4,14 m - Musée d’Orsay

Henry Lerolle, The Organ Rehearsal, Salon of 1885 - 2,35 x 3,60 m - New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Henry Lerolle committed himself with passion to painting. Known at first for his religious painting, a genre that he helped renewing by introducing a particular realism, he received enthusiastic criticism at the Salon of 1874 for Le Baptême de Saint-Agoar et de Saint-Agilbert, which the State purchased for 3’500 francs on behalf and for the Church of Saint-Christophe in Creteil.

He continued to present a series of religious paintings at the Salon: Les Pleurs de Sainte-Marie-Madeleine (The Tears of Saint-Mary-Magdalene) in 1875, purchased by the State for the museum of Semur-en-Auxois, (now lost); then in 1877, Jesus chez Marthe et Marie (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours); in 1878 a Communion des Apôtres for the Church of Saint François-Xavier in Paris, where it can still be admired today; Jacob chez Laban was awarded a third class medal at the Salon of 1879 (Musée Jules Chéret, Nice). However, it was with a work of rural inspiration, Dans la Campagne (In the Countryside) that Henry Lerolle obtained a first  class medal at the Salon of 1880. The monumental painting, this time acquired by the Musée du Luxembourg (and today in the Musée d’Orsay where it is currently being renovated), inspired so much interest that it was reproduced by nine different artists, among them the engraver Focillon – a notoriety which rivaled the popularity of L’Angelus by Jean-François Millet.

In the 1880s, Lerolle’s taste for open air scenes made him an attentive observer of country life. Many of his works represent women at work, such as Les Moissonneuses (The Harvesters) (Musée des Beaux-Arts in Mulhouse), or Paysanne Portant des Seaux (Peasant Woman Carrying Buckets) (Musée des Beaux-Arts in Orléans). Throughout this decade, the painter Henry Lerolle alternated between subjects after nature and religious themes. Large format works succeeded one another, for example, Au Bord de la Rivière (On the Banks of the River), Salon of 1881 (Boston Museum of Fine Arts) and L’Arrivée des Bergers (The Arrival of the Shepherds), Salon of 1883 (Musée des Beaux-Arts in Carcassonne), which the art critic Paul Mantz esteemed as “conveying a surprising and poetic vision.” But the great success of this period came with the presentation at the Salon of 1885 of a very large work A l’Orgue (The Organ Rehearsal). On this monumental painting, Henry Lerolle represented his family participating in a service, in the church of Saint-François-Xavier in Paris. This painting was sold in 1886, during the first exhibition organized by the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in New York. It was purchased by the American collector George I. Seney, who bequeathed it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Music remained at the center of the artist’s work to such extent that a contemporary critic wrote: “Henry Lerolle, in painting lets us hear music ”.

The 1890s : the circle of friends and his intimates

Henry Lerolle Portrait by Ramon Casas

Musée national d'art contemporain de Catalogne

During this period, Henry Lerolle rapidly acquired an undeniable fame. In the harmonious interior of 20 Avenue Duquesne, a discreet luxury with its mixture of inherited and modern furnishing, its black grand piano, and its walls covered with light yellow, William Morris wallpaper, Lerolle began to collect the works of his contemporaries. Starting with Degas, Fantin-Latour, Puvis de Chavannes, Besnard, Renoir, Gauguin, Carrière, he quickly added to his collection the works of Cassatt, Whistler, Thaulow and so many others, without neglecting the Old Masters such as  Chardin and Poussin next to 17th and 18th century French and Italian drawings, as well as Japanese prints, widely sought after ever since the opening of Japan at the end of the Meiji era in 1868.

Lerolle painted in his studio on the top floor of his mansion in the Avenue Duquesne, right above the sitting room where, in an atmosphere of friendly simplicity, unaffected and in good taste, he liked to welcome his friends the painters Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jose-Maria Sert, the young Maurice Denis; the musicians Claude Debussy, Vincent d’Indy, Paul Dukas and his own brother-in-law, Ernest Chausson; the writers Pierre Louÿs, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, Paul Claudel, André Gide… for the pleasure of inspiring conversations about art and litterature, and sometimes listening to music.

In the 1890s, Lerolle added a new private register to his work, with interior scenes, portraits and still lifes, most often representing his wife Madeleine or his daughters Yvonne and Christine in the family universe of the Avenue Duquesne. He portrayed them reading, sewing or playing the piano in a serene, intimate atmosphere. Yvonne and Christine, submitting to friendly pressure from Edgar Degas, married respectively Eugène and Louis Rouart.

Commissions for decorations and official honors

Henry Lerolle, around 1900, photography

Collection particulière

Around the turn of the century, Henry Lerolle depicted, in very large formats, highly composed scenes permeated by an atmosphere of timelessness, where young women dressed entirely in white, evolved in an idyllic nature, on the banks of ponds surrounded by foliage: Douce Journée (Sweet Day) (Salon of 1897) ; Femmes se Promenant le Long de l’Eau (Women Strolling Along the Waterside) (Salon of 1905). There were also numerous variations on the theme of women at their toilet.

Simultaneously, the artist continued to receive commissions for major wall decorations. He used his favorite themes : the iconography of  nature and the Republic for the Sorbonne (1889) and the Paris Hotel de Ville (1889-1890) ; religious subjects for the Parisian Church of Saint-Martin des Champs (1890), the chapel of Notre-Dame du Calvaire in Paris (1896), the Dominican convent in Dijon (1898) and the Church of Notre-Dame de la Gloriette in Caen (1901) ; musical themes for the Schola Cantorum in Paris.

For Henry Lerolle, the end of the 19th century was marked as much by honors as by melancholy. Member of the jury of the Exposition Universelle Internationale of 1889, he was decorated with the Légion d’Honneur in the same year. In 1890, he participated in the founding of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. However, ten years later, he was cruelly affected by the accidental death of his dearest friend and brother-in-law, the composer Edouard Chausson. The Dreyfus Affair, which had already divided the French nation for the past several years, did not spare the painter’s circle of friends. Those close, such as Degas or Ernest Rouart (Julie Manet’s husband and the brother of Yvonne’s and Christine’s husbands) were virulent antidreyfusards, which Henry Lerolle nevertheless did not hold against them in the spirit of friendship and his absolute concern for freedom of thought. He continued to participate in the Salons until 1922, painting in his studio on the Avenue Duquesne and receiving his faithful artist friends, bequeathing the image of an enlightened man, discoverer of talents and active witness of an era favorable to the emergence of original geniuses.

Henry Lerolle died on April 22, 1929, and was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Soon after his death, his friend Maurice Denis paid him homage in a small book, which, not without some nostalgia, reports on the brilliant circle of friends formed around the painter and his family. “How can one say enough about his personal charm, his conversation, his friendship… he simultaneously embodied a grand bourgeois and a street kid of Paris.”


Written based on a text from 1981 by Vincent Lerolle, the painter’s grandson

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