In 1846, aged 17, Auguste Toulmouche moved to Paris to become a pupil of the eminent French painter Charles Gleyre. Gleyre’s register at the time reads like a Who’s Who of soon-to-be-famous young artists including Jean-Léon Gérôme, James Whistler, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Claude Monet, whose cousin Toulmouche was later to marry. The young artist made his Salon debut two years later, and soon developed a reputation as a fine painter of intimate scenes of elegantly dressed Parisiennes. This status was secured at the Salon of 1852 when he was awarded the first of several medals of honour and one of his paintings was purchased by the Emperor of France, Napoleon III.
Emile Zola once famously described the young women in Toulmouche’s pictures as ‘delicious dolls’ and certainly some critics at the time and since have pounced on this as a reason to dismiss his opulent interiors and their privileged occupants as decedent trifles. But I find such commentaries usually miss the point. Toulmouche and his École des Beaux-Arts contemporaries were painting academic realism, not social realism. If you want a picture that portrays the everyday lives of the poor then seek out Courbet, Millet, Herkomer and Holl. Afterall, this is ‘Art for art’s sake’ not altruism for God’s sake. This is Aesthetic Romanticism and romance is all about fantasy.
Auguste Toulmouche was a master at capturing beautiful young women dressed in luxurious fabrics. Alongside his contemporaries Alfred Stevens, Frédéric Soulacroix, and James Tissot, Toulmouche was a great chronicler of French fin de siècle fashion. For this reason I believe it would be wrong to assume that the paintings of Auguste Toulmouche were exclusively painted for, and admired by, men. Whilst Toulmouche’s male clients may well have been gazing upon the faces and figures of his female subjects the eyes of their wives were delighting at the artist’s remarkable ability to accurately capture haute couture in minute detail. In his meticulous rendering of the styles and fabrics favoured by Belle Époque Paris, Toulmouche has few peers. What he did with his paintbrush in the second half of the nineteenth century, Helmut Newton did with his camera in the twentieth.
Toulmouche’s ‘delicious dolls’ influenced a great many painters of the female figure who came after him. The very year of his death in 1890 the ever-popular Delphin Enjolras began exhibiting at the Paris Salon. Enjolras’ diaphanous young debutantes might well be Toulmouche ladies re-attired as 1920’s flappers and gathered around a central light source instead of a chaise longue. Even today, young figure painters of the Russian School are churning out oils of chic young women that owe a great debt to la demoiselles de la mode of Auguste Toulmouche. Albeit in significantly less clothing.
Today, oil paintings by Auguste Toulmouche hang the Louvre in Paris, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes. The rest remain in private ownership, principally in North America where he has always had a strong following amongst wealthy collectors.