The Sorrows of Love by Louis-Léopold Boilly

The Sorrows of Love by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1790)

After three days of struggling with a small electronic notebook and the vagaries of foreign WiFi to publish my blogs I am back home to the comfort of my own PC and a fast WiFi.  In just over two months time we are off to Hong Kong and Australia for three weeks and I dare not think about how I am going to cope with trying to publish the blog but time will tell.

Today, My Daily Art Display is featuring a new painter to my blog.  He is the French portraitist and genre painter Louis-Léopold Boilly.  Boilly was born in La Bassée, a small town in the Nord department of Northern France, not far from Lille, in 1761.  He was brought up in a simple household, his father being a wood-carver.  He was a self-taught painter and started to turn out works when he was still only twelve years of age.  He showed some of his drawings and paintings to the local Augustinian friars and so impressed by them that in 1777, the bishop of Arras extended an invitation to Boilly to come and study in his bishopric.  The young Boilly painted prolifically producing more than three hundred small works of portraiture during that period.

In 1787 Boilly, now a much admired and renowned artist, moved to Paris but these were troubled times in the capital city with the start of the French Revolution.  His early works dwelt for the most part on amorous and moralizing subjects.   My Daily Art Display painting today entitled The Sorrows of Love, completed in 1790, is like many of his works of that period.    In the late 1790’s, after specializing in interior genre scenes, Boilly decided to switch to depictions of urban life and this gave us the chance, through his works, to witness life in Paris during that time.   Apart from the artistic merit of his compositions, he offers us a direct, candid view of Paris and the customs of its people.  His paintings were often awash with figures.  His paintings were often humorous and in a way displayed Boilly’s droll appreciation of Parisian urban life.

Throughout his career, Boilly was respected as a fine portraitist and received many commissions from the middle classes and the famous.   He had also made a name for himself as an artist who liked to paint somewhat titillating images, which were, at the time, very popular with patrons, who took their pleasures by enjoying the roguish side of life.  Boilly first encountered problems with his works in 1794, when one of his paintings, Lovers and the Escaped Bird,  was considered more than just erotic but that it was termed obscene by the Committee of Public Safety and that  the “crime” carried the penalty of a prison sentence as well as a very large fine.  He only escaped incarceration, when members of the Committee, on searching his studio, discovered more patriotic works, such as The Triumph of Marat, and that was enough to release the errant artist.  After this brush with officialdom, Boilly quickly toned-down his works.

In 1833 he was decorated as a chevalier of the nation’s highest order, the Legiond’Honneur.  Boilly died in Paris in 1845, aged 83 and his long life spanned the times when his country and his life was ruled by the royal monarchy of Louis XVI, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Empire and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy.

Today’s featured wok by Boilly is entitled The Sorrows of Love and in it we see a young lady being supported by her confidante.  She exhibits an exaggerated and shocked demeanour.  Her overstated affectation of grief reminds one of the demeanours of an actor hamming up a part in a play.  So what has brought on this distress expressed in the most dramatic way by the lady?  Look at the maid, wearing the black cowl.  In one hand she has an unopened letter which she offers the distraught woman.  It is not the content of the letter that is upsetting the lady as she recognises her own handwriting on the cover.  It is an unopened love letter being returned to her from her lover, who no longer reciprocates her love.  Not only is her love letter returned but in the maid’s right hand we can see that she is holding a head and shoulder portrait of the lady herself, which one presumes she gave to the man in her life, but tragically for her, this too is being returned as unwanted.   One must presume that the colour of the maid’s cowl is not just a coincidence and it is probably symbolic of the death of the love affair between her mistress and her lover.  The ending of the affair has occurred in a brutal fashion.  No letter of explanation, just a return of what is no longer wanted.

The Suitor’s Gift is in the same tradition of bourgeois genre scenes, which examine the many sides of love.  These works were greatly sought after by the public and collectors alike, and it seems probable, therefore, that the present work was completed to satisfy a taste for these subtle, yet highly charged scenes.  Before us we can witness Boilly’s skill at capturing the split-second of a seemingly every-day episode, whilst filling the scene with inner feeling, subtlety and mystery.