11591 LE BABY BY AUGUSTE DE LA BRELY (1838–1906) French. Signed and dated, 1863. Measurements: Framed: Width: 71 1/4″ (181 cm); Height: 61 1/4″ (155.6 cm) Sight Size: Width: 63 1/8” (160.3 cm); Height: 53 1/4” (135.2 cm).
Oil on canvas.
Auguste de la Brely was born in 1838 at Fuissé, in eastern France. He was a student of the Swiss-born Charles Gleyre, a classical painter whose other pupils included Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
La Brely’s genre paintings were praised by contemporaries for his “firm and brilliant touch, the freshness of his color and above all his prodigious skill of hand: under his brush the fabrics have all their brilliance and suppleness, the shimmering satin, the copper and steel of armor shines like reality itself. He was also fond of the Louis XIII period, whose costumes, fabrics, furniture, weapons and utensils he knows well. All of this is rendered by him with a striking truth in a number of pictures…”1 By the 1870s he began to focus on portraits, which were even more highly praised. Important collections containing works by the artist include the Musée des Ursulines, Mâcon, the Musée Greuze, Tournus, and the Musée Carnevalet, Paris.
This extraordinary picture of large scale almost certainly represents the discovery of Auguste de la Brely’s debut painting, submitted to the Paris Salon de 1863. His entry is recorded as “No. 265 – Le baby” in Explication des ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture, gravure, et lithographie des artistes vivants exposés au Palais des Champs-Elysées le 1er Mai 1863.
The painting captures a household scene with a young mother and her newly-ambulating child. Toys lie on the floor, a cupboard door hangs open, and a meal of fruits and bread rests on the side cabinet. The picture seems to employ objects within an interior as symbols, a sort of crypitc puzzle to be solved by the observer, more in line with seventeenth century works. The composition harkens back to Baroque paintings of interiors like those by Carlo Manieri in Italy and the Golden Age masters of north Europe, with a focus on geometric lines that guide the viewers’ eye, and strategically placed items of symbolic importance. The fruit and decanters, as well as the parrot, recall seventeenth century still life paintings. From the Middle Ages this exotic bird represented the virgin birth of Christ, and later came to be seen as a highly coveted companion and a symbol of wealth and sophistication in domestic scenes. The pear customarily appears in images of the Virgin and Child, and alludes to the sweetness of virtue and the mother’s role in nourishing the child. Furthermore, the cabinet on which they rest is a French Renaissance revival piece of furniture, reinforcing la Brely’s antiquarian tastes.
The toddler’s posture in its walker may be compared to the treatment of children and putti in late baroque classical paintings. Jan Pauwell Gillemans II’s series of architectural capriccios of putti with swags of fruit provides examples of the more adult comportment of infants in baroque art. Here the baby holds a doll in one arm and presents what looks like the lash of a whipping top, held up to their mother with the other hand. A ratchet (or noisemaker) lays on the floor across the room in the mother’s path.
The mother pulls a bright red ribbon tethered to the infant’s walker, signifying a bond of love, as she literally and figuratively ushers the baby into its next stage of growth. She gazes back at her child, turned away from the objects to her left; a mandolin hangs on the wall, and her elegant cloak has been discarded on a chair, indicating her attention has shifted from amusements and fashion towards her domestic life.
A painting by la Brely from the following year (1864) is strikingly similar in both the type of interior setting as well as the subjects being painted, and likely portrays the same family unit, with the child now probably three years old (figure 1). It shows the child kissing their mother, who holds a doll behind her back. This painting is probably la Brely’s 1864 Salon entry, titled “La Suprise.” Another portrait dated 1865 depicts a young woman dressed in black and holding a small bouquet of flowers, clearly standing in the same room as the present painting. She is positioned before the distinctive blue wall covering and white dado with gold trim, and rests her hand on an identical chair back (figure 2). It seems probable that la Brely was related to or personally associated with the subjects of these portraits and their home.