Born in the Breton city of Nantes on 21 September 1829, Auguste Toulmouche must have observed great variety in the cultural life of his hometown. Nantes was one of the largest ports in France, and the diversity of people and languages that filled the city was notable. Little is known about the circumstances of Toulmouche’s early years, although his uncle was apparently a sculptor and may have given the boy his first lessons in art.
What is known is that Toulmouche was studying design with another local sculptor, Amedeo Rene Menard, beginning in 1841. Three years later, he was learning painting from a portraitist named Biron who also taught in Nantes. With his fundamental art education completed, Toulmouche left for Paris in 1846 at the age of 17. There he entered the independent studio of Charles Gleyre, the Swiss painter later known for his association with the Impressionists who also began their Paris training under his guidance. Gleyre’s atelier offered Toulmouche exactly what he needed—quiet guidance in the traditional French curriculum of learning to draw in front of classical plaster casts before learning to paint from live models. By 1848, he was ready for his Salon debut.
The year 1848, however, was less than auspicious for beginning a career in any field other than the military. Revolution swept through Europe, and through France for the third time in fifty years. For a scant four years, France was again a republic, only to revert to an empire when Napoleon III declared himself emperor in 1852. For Toulmouche, this turn of events proved fortunate. At the 1852 Salon, he not only earned a third class medal, but his painting, La Fille, was acquired by the emperor himself. The following year, in 1853, Empress Eugénie was so pleased with Toulmouche’s rendering of a domestic genre scene, The First Step, that she too made a purchase.
With success at the Salon and imperial approval of his art, Toulmouche’s reputation was assured. He continued to specialize in depictions of charming domestic scenes of mothers and children or of young women in the throes of various romantic dilemmas. Two works from 1858, both of them exhibited at the Salon of 1859, are typical. In The Lesson, a beautiful young mother reads aloud to her equally appealing daughter from La Fontaine’s fable, The Grasshopper and the Ant; both figures are dressed in exquisitely elegant gowns, and there is a suitably moral lesson being provided. Similarly, in The Prayer, a young boy leans against his mother’s knees as she guides him through bedtime prayers. Behind them, the child’s bed draped in lush white fabric provides a counterpoint to the opulent sky blue moiré of his mother’s skirt. This type of image, sometimes referred to as Costume Painting, found a ready market with both middle class and upper class audiences, and continued to bring Toulmouche professional success and acclaim. In 1861, he won a second class medal at the annual Salon.
As a practitioner of Costume Painting, Toulmouche was one of a group of artists who adapted the emotional expressiveness found in earlier history painting to the depiction of romantic narratives based on everyday life. There is clearly a relationship to acting techniques in this imagery as well; Toulmouche’s figures express a range of sentiments through stylized gestures that would have been part of a standard theatrical repertoire. Other artists who are associated with this specialized type of paining include Jules Emile Saintin, Joaquin Pallares y Allustante, and Charles Joseph Frederick Soulacroix.
Toulmouche’s role in the history of art was unexpectedly altered in 1862 when he married one of Claude Monet’s cousins just at the moment when Monet’s father was looking for someone to “supervise” his son’s art studies in Paris. Naturally, Toulmouche’s reputation as a successful Salon painter made him the logical choice. When Monet arrived in Paris in November 1862, Toulmouche directed him immediately to Gleyre’s studio, commenting that: “He will teach you to do a picture.” [i] Monet began with a willing spirit, but soon chafed under Gleyre’s insistence that he paint in the idealized Academic style rather than attempt to capture the image as he actually saw it. Nonetheless, it was at Gleyre’s that Monet met Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille, all of whom became his close companions. As for Toulmouche, no doubt he was glad to have placed his recalcitrant cousin where he could study art, while simultaneously keeping peace in the family.
During the 1860s, Toulmouche refined his style, and began exploring more complex compositional structures. Works such as The Hesitant Fiancée, 1866, demonstrates a new confidence in the intricate composition of four women who attempt to persuade the reluctant (and gorgeously dressed) bride to overcome her fears. At the beginning of the next decade, in 1870, Toulmouche received the Legion of Honor award, surely a monumental accomplishment for someone from a modest Breton background.
Over the next twenty years, Toulmouche’s painting also showed glimmers of influence from cousin Claude. Although remaining a resolutely academic painter, there was nonetheless a lightening of his palette in the 1870s as well as the incorporation of Japanese elements in images like Afternoon Idyll from 1874. It is equally tempting to wonder whether Monet’s theatrically costumed portrait of Camille Doncieux as La Japonaise, 1875-76, wasn’t influenced in part by what critic Emile Zola described as “Toulmouche’s delicious dolls” [délicieuses poupées de Toulmouche”].
Toulmouche’s work was also admired in the United States. Just as in Paris, the modest size of his paintings, coupled with their visual appeal, made them fashionable among American collectors. He even received favorable mention in an otherwise disparaging overview of French art published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1877. [ii] At the Exposition Universelle in 1878, Toulmouche’s painting was again honored with a third class medal.
He died in Paris on 16 October 1890 at age 61.
Janet Whitmore, Ph.D.
Selected museum collections:
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts
[i] John Rewald, The History of Impressionism, Fourth revised edition, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973), 70.
[ii] “Contemporary Art in France”, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, No. CCCXXII., March 1877, vol. LIV. (481-503), 488.
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