Jean-Louis Forain – Ballerinas and Their Admirers

22 Feb

Jean-Louis Forain, Intermission on Stage, 1879, watercolour, gouache, india ink and pencil on wove rag paper

Jean-Louis Forain’s watercolour “Intermission on Stage” is a wonderful example of the artist’s fascination with ballerinas; a fascination which he inherited from his friend and protégé Edgar Degas: the ultimate painter of ballerinas. Degas even invited the eighteen years younger Forain to participate in the Impressionist exhibitions that were taking place at the time, from 1879 to 1886. Even though both artists chose to portray the same motifs of Parisian nightlife; the balls, theatres, and cafes, they focused on completely different things. While Degas used ballerinas merely as a beautiful motif to further explore the problems of composition and perspective, Forain found good material for social satire whilst observing the social dynamics of the world of dancers, the harsh and ugly reality of their off the stage life.

“Intermission on Stage” is a great example because it shows the ballerinas and their admirer. It is easy to see why the critics at the time praised Forain’s work for its vibrant colour and vigour, I mean, just look at the ballerinas in their vibrant emerald tutus which are painted in swift, quick strokes and thus give the impression of something sketchy, immediate and exciting. A rich, older gentleman is seen eyeing the ballerina in the foreground who is adjusting her shoe, or rather, he is eyeing her perky white breasts peeking from her revealing dance costume. The gentleman is an abonné; a well-off older gentleman who can afford to pay a subscription which would allow him to spend time with the ballerinas behind the stage and enjoy their beauty and charms from close up. He almost looks like a caricature, his big nose, mustache hiding his mouth, his protruding belly, well certainly it isn’t his looks that the turquoise ballerina is after.

Jean-Louis Forain, The Admirer, 1877-79, oil on canvas, mounted on wood

Painting “The Admirer” shows the same thing, just this time the setting is a well-lit cozy spot with red velvet sofa and the gentleman is handing out a big, lush bouquet of red roses to the ballerina who doesn’t look too receptive of his offers. Her gaze seems to say “Oh dear…”, her hands aren’t stretched out eagerly to take the splendid gift. Hmm I guess money cannot buy everything now, can it? That is certainly how the gentlemen in Forain’s paintings felt when they used their money and status to gain access to young ballerinas who otherwise wouldn’t have even glanced at them. Forain was very observant of what goes on society around him and that is what the satire and caricatures interested him so much.

And even when he is not drawing a caricature, he is still imbuing his paintings with some satire and mockery, but there is also a pinch of moralizing here too which reflects his fight for justice and hatred for hypocrisy. It is easy to see why he was such good friends with the poet Arthur Rimbaud with whom he almost shares a birthday; Forain was born on 23th October 1852, and Rimbaud on the 20th October 1854. The two free-spirited men, both young and full of life, even shared a room for a few months and their bohemian lifestyle was certainly a slap in the face to the proper society and its values, or lack of thereof. Forain’s chatty and witty nature easily made him a friend of other writers and poets as well, such as Paul Verlaine and Joris-Karl Huysmans. He seems to have been a vivacious and important part of the artists group at the time and it is a shame that he isn’t more popular today.

Jean Louis Forain, Dancer in Her Dressing Room, c.1890

Jean Louis Forain, In the Wings, 1899

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