Italian Models: Hébert and the Peasants of Latium

ARCHIVE
2009

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Ernest HébertLa mal'aria© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
Ernest Hébert (1817-1908)

Ernest Hébert was born into the era of Romanticism, and began his career just as Realism was emerging. The young man from Grenoble had been expected to take up his father's

profession as a notary. Lessons with his private teacher, Benjamin Rolland, a pupil of David and curator at the Musée de Grenoble, revealed his early talent. After a classical training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he won the Grand Prix de Rome for History Painting, he found fame with La Mal'aria at the 1850 Salon.

With a bright future opening up before him, he divided his time between France and Italy, where he was twice director at the Académie de France in Rome. At the same time he turned to portrait painting and was much sought after by Parisian society during the Second Empire and the Third Republic. However, it was in Italy that he discovered his favourite subjects, painting scenes of peasant life overlaid with a melancholic realism. This exhibition illustrate the most inspired and happiest period in the painter's career.

Ernest HébertRosa Nera at the Fountain© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Franck Raux
Italian models

Hébert's view of the peasant women with whom he once spent his daily life, has none of the sentimentality and nostalgia found in the works of Romantic painters, who saw them as primitive people, bypassed by civilisation. Nor were these village women mere extras in his scenes. In choosing them as subjects, Hébert does not produce portraits of "types" but rather women of flesh and blood, marked by the hard lives they lead, women whose innermost personalities he succeeded in bringing out.

Ernest HébertPortrait of Crescenza© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi
Some of them, like Rosa Nera, would later become professional models. When winter came, without work in the fields, they would come down from the mountains to pose in Hébert's Roman studio at the Villa Medici. Depending on the subject of the painting, they would dress in traditional costume or in the veils of the Virgin, etc. In response to the fashion for all things Italian, some models even chose to move to Paris, affirming the realism of subjects ever popular at the Salon. Born near San Germano, the young Maria Pasqua, known as Maria Abruzzèze, became, like her father, a semi professional model. She was barely six years old when she posed in Paris for paintings by Hébert, Jalabert and Salles.

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