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Émile Renouf (1845-1894) - Un coup de main

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posted by Pau NG alias Padre Martini on Monday 7th of March 2022 07:40:44 PM

Émile Renouf (1845-1894) - Un coup de main For over 100 years, Un Coup de Main (The Helping Hand), Émile Renouf’s greatest work, drew visitors to Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Collection with its captivating subject painted on an impressive scale and with realistic detail. It quickly became an icon of French nineteenth century academic art in the nation's capital and throughout the United States, thanks to the wide distribution of its engraving which hung in American classrooms, churches, hospitals, and living rooms. After its first sale in these rooms in 1988, The Helping Hand was returned on loan to Washington to hang once again in the Grand Salon of the Renwick Gallery, the first location of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, as part of a special anniversary exhibition, where it once again won the hearts of visitors. It then returned to these rooms in 1997, setting the artist’s world record of over $1.1 million. From its debut at the Paris Salon of 1881, The Helping Hand was an immediate public success and secured Renouf’s international fame. The monumental composition invited an intimate connection with the weathered fisherman and his fresh-faced companion, a wide, heavy oar uniting the two as they row out to sea, avoiding the jagged rocks ahead. The shared effort of seasoned sailor and his “helping hand” is brilliantly conveyed in posture and expression, revealing the artist’s academic training at Paris’ Académie Julian under Gustave Boulanger, Jules Lefebvre, and Carolus-Duran. His seafaring subject responded to contemporary interests in paintings of “La Mer” and hanging alongside Renouf’s expansive canvas at the Salon were fellow artists’ equally large submissions of sailboats on distant horizons, fishermen hauling heavy nets from choppy waters, beachcombers, and women and children searching for returning loved ones. Unlike the Romantic marine painters such as Joseph Vernet and Joseph Mallord Turner, who envisioned untamed nature overwhelming the human figure, artists of the late nineteenth century shifted a focus to the daily, often challenging life of the rural people who lived on and off the sea, seemingly removed from modern technologies and industrialization (Fink, n.p.). Salon critics recognized The Helping Hand as a continuation of Renouf’s commitment to exploring the life of fishing communities of Brittany and surrounding regions (areas the artist visited and knew well). It was a highly successful progression of realist themes he boldly explored in work such as his 1880 medal winning Salon submission La Veuve de l'Île de Sein, 1880 (fig. 1, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper). At the same time, audiences expressed some relief that Renouf had turned from the grief of a widow at her husband’s grave overlooking a vast, somber sea to the placid waters and loving pair of The Helping Hand. Lengthy reviews were spent describing both the artist’s high level of detail in costume, expression, and natural surroundings, and the message these elements conveyed of a girl, the age of “joy in bloom, for playing games” here facing her task with bravery and determination for an appreciative elder (as translated from the French, Énault, “Renouf,” p. 110). Given the universal praise and impressive scale of the painting, The Helping Hand was reportedly to be purchased by the French State, a transaction interrupted by powerful American dealer William Schaus (who also owned the artist’s After the Storm, 1887, later given to The Metropolitan Museum of Art) (The Churchman, p. 631). The painting was soon acquired by Brooklyn collector George Ingraham Seney (1826-1893). A self-made man from Astoria, New York, Seney served as president of the Metropolitan Bank of New York in the late 1870s, and was a financier of railroads, with great means to fuel his voracious collecting habit. Seney quickly owned more canvases than his house could hold, but mounting debts required the sale of the majority of the collection including The Helping Hand in 1885. It was at this auction where astute curators of the Corcoran Gallery of Art acquired the work for $7,500 (a particularly fine acquisition given Seney’s purchase price of $12,000). The Corcoran Gallery, founded by the financier William W. Corcoran (1798-1888), was at the time of the Seney sale an aggressive buyer of the era's best European and American paintings. The Helping Hand was hung at the Corcoran’s first gallery (where Frederick Arthur Bridgman’s Procession of the Bull Apis was also on view, see lot 41), a mansard-roofed mansion at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street, built between 1859-71, and later named for its architect James Renwick. Not long after its installation, at Renouf’s request, the work was sent to the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where the artist received a gold medal and was named a chevalier in the Légion d’Honneur. As it had in Paris, The Helping Hand immediately connected with its audience at the Corcoran Gallery (fig. 2). A gallery guide published soon after the work’s acquisition pointed out the work’s “realistic treatment” suggesting visitors appreciate the “simplicity of subject and exquisite delineation of character,” particularly the nuanced expression of the youth and the fisherman’s “honest” face, the specific qualities of each suggesting that “were she smiling… or were he to show more pleasure than the gleam of… [his] eye or the smile of his compressed lips, the charm of the picture would be lost” (Catalogue of the Paintings, Drawings, Casts, Bronzes, etc., p. 48). The Helping Hand was often included as one of the few works illustrated in catalogues of the Corcoran Gallery, and it also appeared in a wide variety of popular publications, on the cover of church bulletins and literary periodicals, in travel guides to Washington, D.C., in textbooks, and as mass produced prints affordable enough for a wide variety of American public institutions and homes (Fink, n.p.). As one writer explained, though it was painted by a “distinguished French painter, Americans could just as easily connect with its universal message that “no phase of childhood is more charming to us than this very one of ‘helping,’” as “the artist had caught both the art and the spirit” (Keysor, p. 324). The Helping Hand was such an immediately recognizable image that a 1928 radio program asked “what... is it that wins such universal admiration and enthralls the attention of all who see the original?" (“Renouf’s Art Radio Topic,” p. 13). The clear answer being: “the artist has understood and here transferred to canvas one of the finest emotions of life, the understanding love and sympathy of the old for the very young… The artist has subordinated everything in the picture to the center of interest – those tiny willing hands (“Renouf’s Art Radio Topic,” p. 13). With the passing decades, the painting only became more iconic: communities throughout the United States raised funds for high quality prints of the work to hang in public spaces, contests were held for the best amateur painted reproductions and, in 1935, the painting made its way to Hollywood, with Shirley Temple playing the role of the young sailor as the painting came to life in Curly Top (fig. 3). At the time of the 1988 sale, Michael Monroe, then-curator in charge of the Renwick Gallery, stated “someone asked about… [The Helping Hand] every day, and they drew their breath when they saw the real painting” (Conroy, n.p.), a sentiment echoed by the Washington, D.C. based collector who then acquired it. He explained The Helping Hand “has great emotional impact… It is a painting that a lot of people love” (Tully, p. D2).

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