Sunday, March 01, 2009

Pic du Jour • Click pic to enlarge

The Card Sharp on the Boulevard, 1806, oil on wood by Louis-Léopold Boilly

Raised near Lille in northern France, Boilly trained with his father before moving in 1778 to Arras, where he studied with the trompe l'oeil painter Dominique Doncre. In 1785 Boilly settled in Paris and painted trompe l'oeil subjects, small portraits, and scenes of erotic gallantry. With the Revolution and the disbanding of the old royal academy, exclusive privilege to show at the Salon was no longer accorded just to academicians; in 1791 any artist could exhibit. And from that year onward, Boilly exhibited regularly at the Salon: in 1808 he showed Cardsharp on the Boulevard along with a pendant Young Savoyards Showing Their Marmot (private collection, Paris). These paintings mark an important moment in his career, as they were among his first depictions of everyday Parisian street life. Democratic or even populist in subject, they were designed especially to appeal to the wide public that attended the annual Salon exhibitions.

The boulevards of Paris--broad avenues lined with trees--had been a distinctive feature of the city since the eighteenth century, attracting crowds of strollers from all social classes, vendors of all kinds, street entertainers, and purveyors of various licit and illicit pleasures. Cardsharp on the Boulevard shows several episodes on the boulevard du Temple, where, to the right, the scene is dominated by a cardsharp or conjurer, offering cards to a group of attractive young women and children. Various types look on, including the artist himself, the glum, skeptical figure portrayed in a bicorne hat at the center of the group. To the far right a trestle table displays a cup, balls, and dice, the articles of various other tricks. In the left background another crowd makes its way into the premises of a café and patisserie, while in the left foreground a young woman is engaged in the oldest profession. The companion picture shows other popular street entertainments, including young lads from Savoy displaying their pet marmot and playing the hurdy-gurdy. Contemporary critics--and Salon visitors--appreciated Boilly's very fine technique and his ability to capture so many details of costume, custom, and character, which he skillfully worked into a coherent narrative whole. Cardsharp on the Boulevard was designed to appeal to a wide audience, and this delightful slice of Parisian life in the early years of the Empire is no less engaging today than it was in Boilly's time.

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