Musée d'Orsay: The land of monsters. Léopold Chauveau (1870-1940)

The land of monsters. Léopold Chauveau (1870-1940)

The Land of Monsters. Léopold Chauveau (1870-1940)

Léopold ChauveauMonster (Self-portrait?)© Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
The gift of 526 drawings and 48 sculptures to the Musée d’Orsay from Léopold Chauveau’s grandson Marc Chauveau has made it possible to study and rediscovery this neglected but fascinating artist. Although he exhibited on several occasions, whole aspects of his work have never been seen before and fame has eluded him. Today, the Musée d’Orsay is paying him a long overdue tribute.

A doctor by profession, Chauveau began creating art at the age of 35, without any formal training. He did not give up his medical career to become a full-time artist and writer until he was in his fifties. His multifaceted work includes sculptures, drawings, illustrations and stories for children, novels, and short stories.

This exhibition provides an opportunity to immerse oneself in his work and gain an insight into his sources of inspiration and contemporaries. Although his work is unusual, it reflects its era and is still very current.


Doctor Chauveau’s early career

Léopold ChauveauMarfu© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
Léopold Chauveau was born in Lyon in 1870, the son of a renowned researcher in the veterinary and medical field. His father encouraged him to study medicine in Paris. He married in 1897 and soon began to practice this profession which he disliked.

The family settled in Versailles in 1902. The Nabi painter and sculptor Georges Lacombe lived in the same neighbourhood and they became firm friends. Chauveau took up woodcarving in his spare time, probably on the advice of Lacombe. He quickly abandoned wood in favour of more malleable materials: wax and plaster. In around 1905, he began modelling monsters, which became the main subject of his sculptures.

The family moved frequently prior to World War I, from Algeria to Switzerland via the Savoie region, doubtless due to Léopold’s malaise and dissatisfaction with his career.




World War I

Léopold ChauveauMonster© Musée d'Orsay / Patrice Schmidt
On 3 August 1914, Chauveau was called up as a military surgeon in World War I. He worked in a hospital in the Paris region and then near the Front in mobile medical units, at frontline treatment post, and at hospital in Souilly, south of Verdun.

Practicing medicine in peace time had repelled Chauveau, but he was happier as a military surgeon, even though the work was difficult. He was more fulfilled treating fit young soldiers than tending the sick on a daily basis. On postcards to his family, “the paternal monster” drew companions who reflected his state of mind. One sketch shows “the joyful dance of a monster waiting for leave”.

Chauveau witnessed the horrors of war, but also suffered personal bereavements with the deaths of two sons, his wife, father, and best friend Georges Lacombe. He describes these bereavements in La mort a passé (Death Came) and gives an account of his war years among the wounded in Behind the Battle, published in 1916.



Monstrous etymologies

AnonymousZoomorphic vase: bat© Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Claude Germain
“Even as a young child, I already loved anything monstrous. At that point I had only seen the gargoyles on some cathedrals and a few Chinese and Japanese monsters, but I already felt that this was a world that suited me.”

We know that Chauveau developed a passion at a very early age for the fantastical sculptures on cathedrals and Far-Eastern monsters.

Although he does not mention them specifically, other sources may include pre-Columbian art, the seething scenes of Flemish Renaissance engravings, contemporary satirical images, and Symbolism.
While all of these works, consciously or otherwise, shaped his visual universe, Chauveau’s monsters form a unique group in their quantity, diversity, and touching appeal.




The classics revisited

Léopold ChauveauFables de la Fontaine / The rat that has withdrawn from the world© DR
Several groups of pen and ink, watercolour and gouache drawings by Chauveau illustrate classics of literature: the Bible (1920-1921), La Fontaine’s Fables (1921), and Reynard the Fox, a mediaeval fabliau which he rewrote and modernised as Le Roman de Renard (1928 and 1936).

By choosing to illustrate the Bible, Chauveau joins a long-established iconographic tradition ranging from mediaeval illuminations and stained glass windows to more recent illustrations by Gustave Doré and James Tissot, which were very popular at the turn of the twentieth century. He also demonstrates an affinity with the synthetic and colourful world of the Nabi artists, notably Maurice Denis and Charles Filiger, who admired the simplicity of Italian Primitive painters and icons.

The Fables occupy a key place in his work. In his autobiographical text The Dreaming Child, he confides: “La Fontaine was the only schoolbook I opened voluntarily.” As an adult, he cultivated this love of the author; he memorised and recited the fables to ward off melancholy and encouraged children to learn them by heart. He not only illustrated over 70 fables, but also drew both literary and aesthetic inspiration from their concise and pithy form and combined their poetry with a philosophy which he put into practice in everyday life.




Children’s stories

Léopold ChauveauThe house of monsters, n°57© DR
In 1923, several years after his eldest son Pierre drowned and his young son Renaud died following an appendectomy, Chauveau began writing children’s stories. He was deeply affected by these tragedies and did not paint an artificially rosy picture of harsh realities: his heroes die, and drowned people are omnipresent in his drawings for adults.

A contemporary of Nobel Prize winners Rudyard Kipling and Selma Lagerlöf, Chauveau became part of this movement of children’s writers. Describing himself as a “little old child” in his autobiographical manuscript The Dreaming Child, he developed a close complicity with his young readers and gave them an authentic and humorous voice.

Léopold ChauveauThe wonderful cures of Doctor Popotame / The poisoned monkey n°34© Archives Georges Crès / IMEC
His children’s stories often took the form of fables featuring animals. They were first published in 1923 with illustrations by Pierre Bonnard. In 1929, Chauveau finally reprinted the stories with his own illustrations. They were admired by André Gide and his companion Maria Van Rysselberghe, and became a critical success.




The interwar period

Léopold ChauveauMonstrous landscape, n°52
Chauveau’s second marriage, to nurse Madeleine Lamy, finally gave him the financial security he needed to give up medicine and devote himself to writing and illustration in the 1920s.
His childhood friend, the academic and journalist Paul Desjardins, invited him to his literary gatherings known as the “Décades de Pontigny”.

These meetings with some of the most prominent European intellectuals allowed him to forge deep and lasting friendships with André Gide, André Malraux, and Roger Martin du Gard. With Monsieur Lyonnet (1930) and Pauline Grospain (1932), Chauveau became a novelist in the new populist literary genre championed by Martin du Gard. In Pontigny, he also met the founders of the Nouvelle revue française, later to become Gallimard, which published two of his novels.

Although he achieved some recognition for his literary works and children’s stories, his drawings and sculptures were still unknown. Chauveau abandoned sculpture and devoted himself to the very colourful series Monstrous Landscapes, which demonstrates a mastery of the gouache and watercolour wash technique which is quite extraordinary for a self-taught artist.


A politically committed artist

Léopold ChauveauStory of the big tree that ate little children, n°7© DR
As an antimilitarist, appalled by all types of extremism and the rise of fascism, Chauveau brought a sharp and aloof eye to bear on his era.
He sympathised with communist ideas, but refused to become a member of the French Communist Party in order to retain his freedom of action.

However, he did engage in the intellectual debates of the era by signing the response to the Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals published in 1935, and condemning colonialism.

In the late 1930s, Chauveau, who was suffering from kidney disease, became increasingly pessimistic as his health declined.
He turned his back on communism after the signature of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in August 1939. When war was declared, he kept a diary to stave off anxiety and boredom.

He claimed that inspiration had deserted him and that he could only write short pieces which he called “Postcards”. However, he continued to draw “Monstrous landscapes” until his death.




Elective affinities

Claude PontiMouha, original illustration for p. 38© Image avec l'aimable autorisation de l'Ecole des loisirs
Chauveau belongs to the school of irreverent children’s authors who do not instil a moral message or paint a rosy picture of the world, but whose words and pictures enchant their readers.
Tomi Ungerer and Maurice Sendak have created books in a similar vein which are now classics of children’s literature.

Roland Topor is the only illustrator known to could have expressed his admiration for Chauveau, who was largely overlooked at the time. The two artists share a dark sense of humour and a style of drawing which “echoes the rhythm of their heartbeats”.

Claude PontiMouha, original illustration for p. 39© Image avec l'aimable autorisation de l'Ecole des loisirs
Although most of the contemporary illustrators presented here were not familiar with Chauveau, they share elective affinities with him.
Claude Ponti’s detailed and colourful drawing style conjures up a world in which monstrous beings and language break free from conventions, and Grégoire Solotareff draws inspiration from traditional tales to create a darkly humorous world populated by friendly monsters.

Anthony Browne’s graphic style mirrors Chauveau’s precision and poetry. Dorothée de Monfreid’s tools are watercolours and a dark sense of humour.
Animator Bertrand Dezoteux echoes Chauveau via Topor and Bosch with his world of ill-defined beings in a state of metamorphosis.


Students at the Gobelins-Ecole de l’image and Chauveau

Léopold ChauveauThe Jester Babriot, n°24/62
To mark this exhibition, the Musée d’Orsay and the Gobelins-École de l’image visual arts and design school have formed an educational partnership.
First Year Motion Design students have been set the task of creating an animation lasting no more than a minute based on their interpretation of Chauveau’s sculptures, his Monstrous landscapes, and the story of Jester Babriot. Versions with a soundtrack are available on the internet.





Portrait of Léopold Chauveau

19 February 1870

Birth of Léopold Chauveau in Lyon.



After studying medicine to please his father, Léopold became a doctor at 24 and worked in a Parisian hospital.



Aged 27, he married Renée.



Aged 29, he became a father for the first time with the birth of his son Pierre. Michel was born two years later in 1901.


1902 - 1905

From the age of 30, Léopold sculpted his first monsters. He met Georges Lacombe, a painter and sculptor who became his friend.



He was 36 years old when his third son Renaud was born



Aged 40, Léopold left Samoëns in Haute-Savoie to settle in Switzerland and began to draw his first monsters with ink.



Aged 42, he became a father for the fourth time, of a boy named Olivier



Léopold was 44 when the First World War broke out. He looked after the wounded soldiers.


1915 puis 1918

During the war, Léopold lost his eldest son Pierre, his wife Renée, and his third son Renaud


1921 - 1923

At 50, Léopold decided to stop practicing medicine. He moved to Paris to devote himself to drawing and writing children's stories.


1924 - 1939

Aged 53, he remarried with the nurse Madeleine. They lived in Paris in the XIVth arrondissement. Until the end of his life Léopold drew several series of Monstrous Landscapes in watercolor and gouache and continued to publish books for children and adults.


Leopold was almost 70 years old when the Second World War started. He left Paris to stay with his friend the writer Roger Martin du Gard in the département of Orne in Normandy. Very weak, he died on the 17th of June 1940.