Portrait of a Lady
Research by Angela Brown
Hector Edward Philippe Caffieri was born in 1847 at 21 Prestbury Road, Cheltenham, where a blue plaque was erected in 1986 by the Cheltenham Civic Society to commemorate his place of birth. He was schooled in Mid Norton, Christchurch, Somerset, where the 1861 census records him as a student, aged 13. He studied in Paris under Leon Bonnat and J Lefebvre (1), both acclaimed academicians, before moving to London.
H L Mallalieu claims in his book, 'The Dictionary of British Watercolour Artists up to 1920', that Caffieri 'seems to have covered the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and to have lived in London from 1882'. However, the census of 1881 records Caffieri as boarding with a family in Hampstead and records him as an artist, aged 33. Interestingly, the disabilities column record him as being 'short-sighted', although this does not appear to have hampered his career as he was a prolific artist who is credited with an abundance of work.
Caffieri was widely exhibited during his lifetime; The Royal Academy from 1875 to 1901 and the Salon des Society des Artistes Francais in Paris from 1892 to 1893 with Abtente and Depart des Bateaux de Bolougne.
An exhibition of his work reported in the Glasgow Herald on 27 November 1900 stated,
'At the Continental Gallery there have been on view 31 water-colour drawings by Mr Hector Caffieri. He uses colour unreservedly and his works belong to the class which possesses immediate appeal for a large selection of the public. He has a sure eye for the popularly attractive, and almost any one of his drawings taken at random would elicit the exclamation “Oh how pretty!” There are presentments of the flower markets of Boulogne, the picturesque harbour, the busy quay, the shore in Summer-time dotted with bathers and children paddling. One drawing, where we see two self conscious little white-capped fisher girls on a pier is lent by H.R.H. the Princess of Wales'. (S2)
Caffieri was an artist of some standing during his years in London. In 1885 he was elected RI (S3) and in the same year, whilst living in London, he was asked to appear as an expert witness at Marylebone in the case of Henry Van de Woyde v Alexander M Rossi.
The case for the complainant, Henry Van de Woyde, was that the defendant, Alexander M Rossi, an artist, had painted a picture copied from a photograph belonging to him of Miss Mary Anderson in the character of Pauline in 'The Lady of Lyons'. Hector Caffieri was called as an expert witness and stated that "he was a member of the Society of British Artists …. In his opinion there was not the faintest likeness between the photograph of Miss Anderson and the picture". (S4)
Caffieri moved from London to France around 1901, and it was whilst in Boulogne-sur-Mer that he began painting the local fisher-folk. (S3) It does seem as though Caffieri was already prodigious in his painting of coastal scenes as these were exhibited in various galleries throughout the 1890s.
Boulogne-sur-Mer was popular with Victorians and as early as 1856 more than 7000 British were living there. (S4) This, and the popularity of the Newlyn School of Art throughout the 1890s, may have led to Caffieri’s undoubted popularity during that period.
Caffieri retired from the RI in 1920 (S3), aged 73, and eventually died in 1932 at the grand old age of 85.
Describing the watercolours exhibited in the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition of 1899, the Liverpool Mercury reported that,
'Mr Hector Caffieri consciously avoids the use of figures to portray incident, and employs them in a purely aesthetic manner. In Conversation and Decoration they are little more than “still life” – but very delightful still for all that'. (S6)
Caffieri’s Portrait of a Lady would therefore seem an unusual example of his work. Firstly, it is rare to find a painting of Caffieri’s in which the figure features so prominently, with little emphasis on the background. In other examples of his work, such as A Game on the Beach or The Pilots Wife, in which he paints models not dissimilar to his 'Lady', Caffieri demonstrates his talent for landscape by firmly putting them in their seaside, presumably Boulogne-Sur-Mer, setting.
This may be reflective of Caffieri’s French training. One of Caffieri’s teachers, Leon Bonnat, is described in The Encyclopedia Brittanica as:
'Léon Bonnat, in full Léon-Joseph-Florentin Bonnat (born June 20, 1833, Bayonne, France - died September 8, 1922, Monchy-St-Éloi), notable French portrait painter and teacher of several well-known artists ... He painted about 200 portraits, most of them featuring photographically accurate draftsmanship and subdued colouring.'
Bonnat’s Wikipedia page further comments on his style:
'Bonnat's emphasis on overall effect on the one hand, and rigorous drawing on the other, put him in a middle position with respect to the Impressionists and academic painters.'
Portrait of a Lady seems to tally exactly with the description of Bonnat’s portraiture. The figure demonstrates excellent draftsmanship, but the sumptuousness of the peach satin in the negligee and the ermine edging are painted in a much looser impressionistic style.
The second deviation from Caffieri’s work seems to be his employment of the central figure to impart a message. The model seems to be much more than 'still life'. Did the artist intend to lend an ambiguity to the painting to provoke discussion as much as to provide decoration?
Caffieri’s other famous French teacher, J Lefebvre, also painted a portrait in 1890 entitled Portrait of a Lady.
(S1) Ward, Christopher, Dictionary of British Art, Volume IV Victorian Painters
(S2) Glasgow Herald (Glasgow, Scotland),
27 November 1900
(S3) Mallalieu, H L, The Dictionary of British Watercolour Artists up to 1920
(S4) The Times, 23 April 1885, Issue 31428, p12, col C
(S5) Summerscale, K,
Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace
(S6) Liverpool Mercury, 25 September 1899, Describing the watercolours exhibited in the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition of 1899
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