Oil paintings of early 20th century Paris capturing the city between the Belle Epoque and the 1930s are perennially popular. This was the city’s Golden Age when the boulevards were crammed with cafes and cabarets, hansom cabs and beautiful women. With so many terrific artists of the past century having painted Paris post 1900 potential buyers with fifteen thousand pounds (or twenty thousand dollars) to spend are spoilt for choice but a perrenially popular choice is the Picturesque School.
Essentially the artists of the Picturesque School fall into two groups; painters of the period and painters of the past. Setting aside the work of Jean Beraud 1849-1945, Jean-François Raffaëlli 1850-1924, Pierre Bonnard 1867-1947 and Louis de Schryver 1862-1942 who are way out of our price bracket, in the first group – the painters of the period – we have Gustave Mascart 1845-1919, Eugène Galien-Laloue 1854–1941, Georges Stein 1870-1955 and Edouard Leon Cortès 1882-1969. All four captured street life in Paris in the first quarter of the 20th century and it is still possible to buy one of their pictures for under £20,000.
In the second group there are the painters of the past; artists born in the 20th century whose nostalgic work was still rendering the Roaring Twenties in the 1960s and ‘70s. Pre-eminent among these is Antoine Blanchard 1910-1988. Parisian street scenes by Blanchard sell alongside those of the four artists named above and can even fetch higher prices. Today Antoine Blanchard is – to quote the biographical information so oft repeated by auction houses and dealers – ‘considered one of the leading exponents of the School of Paris painters’. I would question that. Twice actually. The questions being ‘how?’, and ‘why?’.
Most of these same artist biographies tell us that Antoine Blanchard attended the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but then they also claim that ‘Antoine Blanchard went on the win the Prix de Rome’ which he most certainly did not. The Prix de Rome was a scholarship for arts students who were given a bursary enabling them to study in Rome for three to five years at the expense of the French government. Like many thousands of other art students Antoine Blanchard may have submitted work in the competition but he did not win a prize. And so – thanks as always to lazy art reviewers, dealers and auction cataloguers – these hazy facts and plain untruths have been repeated again and again until we reach the point now where a derivative also-ran like Antoine Blanchard is mentioned in the same sentence as those earlier and far more gifted painters of picturesque Parisian street scenes.
The best that can be said of Blanchard is that he was a good copyist, specifically of the work of Eduard Leon Cortès, similar scenes painted so skilfully by Eugene Galien-Laloue being somewhat beyond him. Not content with copying the work of Cortès, Blanchard enthusiastically duplicated his own paintings. The faintly ridiculous compilation of Blanchard’s catalogue raisonné has revelled dozens of virtually identical ‘Boulevard de la Madeleines’ and ‘Place de la Concords’ featuring the same three white horses pulling the same carriage past the same fur-coated women holding hands with the same schoolboy. To be fair, sometimes the street is wet and sometimes it’s covered in snow but that’s as diverse as it gets in the Paris of Antoine Blanchard.
The figures in his paintings do at least make me smile. Has no Blanchard buyer ever stopped to wonder why – in such inclement weather – all the people in his paintings are standing stock-still? It may be permanently pouring in his pictures but if Antoine is to be believed no-one in 1930’s Paris scurried down the street huddled against the driving rain and snow like normal people but instead stood – like statues – legs akimbo, staring into the middle distance.
But if this is true, why then are his paintings so popular? What makes someone shell out fifteen thousand pounds on one of his repetitive look-a-like pictures? Well for about the same money it is possible to pick up an infinitely superior Cortès or Galien-Laloue, so the reason can’t be financial. We can’t blame the dealers. Blanchard’s are undeniably popular so naturally many dealers choose to stock them, though I doubt most of them hold them in very high regard except as money makers.
As always, I put the blame firmly at the feet of fashion. There is no greater enemy of style and connoisseurship than fashion. Inexplicable as it is to me, the name Antoine Blanchard has become a fashionable one and now his paintings are bought by people who – fed up with spending half their lives comparing the market for car, pet, home, and travel insurance – simply plump for the first picturesque painting of Paris they see.
With this in mind I would urge potential buyers of such street scenes to go compare the work of Galien-Laloue, Stein, Cortès, Goeneutte, or Mascart whose pictures are often to be found in the same price bracket. I would take any one Paris scene of theirs over a lorry-load of painted-by-numbers Blanchards any day of the week.
Folks, consider this; for the price of a pair of Blanchards you can buy a Luigi Loir. And that, with the best will in the world, is bonkers.