BIOGRAPHY - Paul Alphonse Viry (1832 - 1913)
A native of Pocé, a village in northwestern France, Paul Alphonse Viry was born in on December 28, 1832.[i] His father, Paulin Viry, was a master blacksmith who lived and worked at the Château de Pocé. His son grew up among the fifteenth-century buildings that formed the estate of the Château. Viry’s father died when he was eleven years old, prompting a move to Ambroise with his mother and sister. He remained in Amboise until 1846. Although not yet documented, he may have spent the next few years in Tours studying art. By October 9, 1856, he was registered at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts where he began his studies under the guidance of François-Edouard Picot (1786-1868), a respected protégé of the neoclassical painter, Jacques-Louis David. Picot’s reputation as a teacher was well established by the middle of the nineteenth century, having received many large commissions for the government of the “citizen-king” Louis-Philippe during the July Monarchy of the 1830s and 40s.
The neoclassical academic training Viry received in Picot’s studio served him well. Like all painters who studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Viry’s mastery of drawing and perspective was impeccable. However, the political upheaval following the revolution of 1848 created an unstable environment for initiating an academic career as a painter. The class struggles that caused the February 1848 uprising in Paris ultimately resulted in the creation of the Second Republic in December of the same year; and although the working people of France did not fare especially well under the reactionary leaders that took control, the artistic community was able to force the conservative juries of the Paris Salon to open the doors to a wider spectrum of styles. This gave support to the growing number of Realist artists such as Gustave Courbet and François Bonvin as well as the Barbizon painters of the 1830s who had been struggling for recognition for decades. The Salon of 1850-51, in particular, showcased a number of major Realist paintings that not only received critical attention, but also reminded the bourgeois Parisian public that revolution was still in the air.
As a young artist during the short-lived Second Republic, Viry may well have been influenced by the new prominence of Realist genre painters like François Bonvin (1817-87) whose work drew inspiration from seventeenth century Dutch painting as well as the eighteenth century French still-life tradition of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. In Viry’s work, this is most evident in his attention to the textures and colors of fabric, metals, fur, and various building materials. He made his Salon debut in 1861, some years after his studies at the Ecole were completed. The reason for this hiatus in the public record remains unknown. [ii] His first Salon submission, a troubadour painting entitled La châtelaine [The Châtelaine], received a positive notice from art critic Louis Leroy in the newspaper, Le Charivari. [iii]
For the next twenty years, Viry exhibited regularly at the Salon, and developed a specialization in both troubadour genre paintings and domestic scenes featuring beautiful women in luxurious gowns. Two works from 1874 reveal the influence of both French Realism and the English Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; A Gallant utilizes a tonal color palette typical of Realism while Arranging Flowers is set in what appears to be an English gothic room. It might also be noted that many of Viry’s paintings include the depiction of hunting dogs, an element more characteristic of English nineteenth century painting than French. This may indicate that the artist spent a significant amount time either in England or working for an English clientele. In fact, the influence of contemporary English painting was noted by at least two art critics, Théophile Thoré who simply noted the similarities, and Hector de Callias, who commented with considerable dismay in his review of the Salon of 1864.
I did not see this time, neither Mr. Leys, nor Tissot, but Mr. Patrois is there who has nothing to envy in terms of Pre-Raphaelitism. (...) Mr. Viry transports this genre on large canvases; he brings in, like the English Millais, two life-size characters in a setting that embarrasses them, and stamps them with the desired dryness. My God! it is high time to put an end to the gullibility of these artists who are nothing less than primitive; art is not outmoded to the point of falling into childhood.” [iv]
Despite Callias’ distaste for Pre-Raphaelite influences, Viry’s 1864 Salon submission, Dans le bois [In the Woods], was not only admired by the public, but also purchased by Princess Mathilde Bonaparte.
Like many of contemporaries, Viry depended on photographs of the countryside for his settings. Historian Paul Busuttil has identified photographs of the Château de Blois in the painter’s archives along with gridded sketches that became the foundation for at least six paintings: Picking lilacs, 1874; A galant, 1874; The engagement Ring, 1874; A falconer,1877; Young woman on the Terrace at the Castle of Blois, 1894; The proposition, undated. These canvases, painted with meticulous attention to detail, are also reminders of Viry’s childhood in this region. The châteaux of the Loire Valley were everyday sights to the young artist.
Viry’s success in the American art market is more fully documented. His introduction to the rapidly expanding group of art collectors in the United States was provided by George A. Lucas, an art dealer who began doing business in Paris in 1857. His diary offers a unique perspective about being an art dealer during the last half of the nineteenth century in France, and it is there that Viry’s name appears at least forty times between March 1872 and February 1885. [v] Lucas was undoubtedly responsible for introducing Viry’s work to American collectors and encouraging his participation in a variety of exhibitions across the US.
At the Brooklyn Art Association, for example, he exhibited a painting entitled The Doves in 1876, and received very positive critical notice. A reviewer in The Aldine notes that Viry’s painting “..is fanciful and prettily expressed. A tall, pale girl, dressed in rich dove-colored satin, is petting her dove in a large doorway, built of soft, gray stone, carefully molded. A greyhound stands by her side. There are no other colors to relieve this predominating delicate ash, but the rich green of two small vines set in a green boxes, a gorgeously colored pheasant at the sill, and the dull red and brown of a line of bricks that just appears above the portal. The effect is like that of frosted silver; and the design is a jeu d’esprit... The finish is simply wonderful.” [vi] This description is consistent with Viry’s other tonal paintings from the 1870s and was clearly well received by New York audiences of the time.
Likewise, the Philadelphia architectural contractor and art collector, E. Burgess Warren (1833-1917), was enthusiastic about Viry’s work. Not only did he purchase at least two of the artist’s paintings, but he included Arranging Flowers in an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1899. A profile on Warren’s collection in The Collector and Art Critic magazine includes Viry’s work alongside that of other late nineteenth-century Barbizon and naturalist painters such as Jean-Charles Cazin, Jules Dupré, Léon Lhermitte and Camille Corot. [vii] Warren may well have acquired his Viry paintings from the New York-based art dealer, Samuel P. Avery, who began collecting Viry’s work at least as early as 1873, when he included Viry’s painting, Cacatoes, in one of his exhibitions at his Broadway gallery. [viii] Avery’s diary for 1873 also indicates that he had acquired two of Viry’s paintings for 1500ff. [ix] He would subsequently purchase several of Viry’s paintings at the Paris Salon of 1879. [x]
The last decade of Viry’s life remains largely unknown. He continued to live and work in Paris, specifically in the 14th arrondissement at 185 avenue du Maine. He was buried in the cemetery of Bagneux on April 12, 1913.
Janet L. Whitmore, Ph.D.
[i] The author gratefully acknowledges the work of historian Paul Busuttil, who is preparing the catalogue raisonné on Paul Viry. He has generously shared his research over many years, and is directly responsible for drawing my attention to much of the information in this biography.
[ii] The archives of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts list Viry as a student from 1856 to 1858. Information courtesy of Paul Busuttil. See Archives nationales at: aj/52/234-aj/52/236 Registres matricules des élèves des sections de peinture et de sculpture. 1807-1894 et aj/52/478.
[iii] Louis Leroy, Le Charivari, samedi 18 mai 1861.
[iv] Hector de Callias, “ Salon de 1864, XIV Les préraphaélites”, L’Artiste Beaux-Arts et Belles Lettres, janvier 1864, Paris. 198.
[Je n’ai aperçu cette fois, ni M. Leys, ni Tissot, mais M. Patrois est là qui n’a rien à leur envier en fait de préraphaélitisme. (...) M. Viry transporte ce genre sur de grandes toiles, il fait entrer à la manière de l’anglais Millais, deux personnages de grandeur naturelle dans un cadre qui les gêne beaucoup, et leur imprime toute la sécheresse désirable. Mon Dieu ! il serait grand temps d’en finir avec ces naïvetés d’artistes qui ne sont rien moins que naïfs ; l’art n’est pas caduc au point de tomber en enfance.]
[v] George Aloysius Lucas,The Diary of George A. Lucas: An American Art Agent in Paris, 1857-1909. Edited by Lilian M.C. Randall. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979).
[vi] The Aldine, Vol. 8, No. 1 (1876): 27.
[vii] The Collector and Art Critic, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Nov. 15, 1899): 28-29.
[viii] S.P. Avery's Catalogue of Oil Paintings, on exhibition (1873). n° 625 Broadway. At Private Sale, (New York: 1873).
[ix] Samuel P. Avery, The diaries, 1871-1882, of Samuel P. Avery, art dealer, edited from the manuscript with an introd. by Madeleine Fidell Beaufort, Herbert L. Kleinfield, and Jeanne K. Welcher, (New York: Arno Press, 1979).
[x] The Art Amateur, vol. 1, no. 5, (October 1879).