“The paintings of this charming artist are extremely delicate and original. His palette is rich, warm and bright. A painter of feminine beauty, he had been initiated bit by bit to the aesthetic splendors of the body of a woman… He is one of the most imaginative and sensible interpreters of feminine grace. He renders the look or feminine smile of his sitters with exquisite subtlety…We do not evaluate a painting by Charles Lenoir, we simply love it.”
(Excerpt from a review of the 1923 Paris Salon quoted in The Painter Charles Amable Lenoir by Jean-Charles Trebbi, Pessac, France: Trebbi, 2003, pg. 3)
Charles Amable Lenoir’s paintings reflect the appeal of female beauty during the nineteenth century. During that period, there “ran a continuing fondness for the ‘keepsake’ tradition of the depiction of beauty, gentle, sweet and somewhat coy.” (Philip Hook and Mark Pottimore, Popular 19th Century Painting: A Dictionary of European Genre Painters, Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1986, pg. 58) Whether Lenoir painted his genre pictures depicting a young girl, a shepherdess, a seamstress, or mythological subjects portraying nudes such as a Nymph, Venus, and Siren, his figures had a gentle and graceful beauty. Lenoir painted also religious subjects as well as portraits, and unlike the avant-garde artists of the time, Lenoir remained faithful to the academic tradition. He was particularly influenced by his teacher and friend, one of the most celebrated Academic artists William A. Bouguereau (1825-1905).
Charles Amable Lenoir was born on October 22, 1860, in Châtellaillon, a small district located in the vicinity of La Rochelle in the province of Charente Maritime, France. Very little has been written about him until recently. Charles Trebbi, one of his grand nephews published a short monograph about Lenoir, The Painter Charles Amable Lenoir, which has uncovered few details about his life and career. Lenoir came from a very modest background; his father was a customs officer and his mother a seamstress. When Lenoir was young, his father was assigned to Fouras, a small town south of La Rochelle, and the family moved there. Despite the financial difficulties his family had, Lenoir took an interest in art early on. He aspired to become an artist, and wished to grow up to be like “Father R…,” an iron monger who displayed some bronze figures in his shop. (Trebbi, pg. 5) Later on, Lenoir admired a painter (unnamed) who specialized in pastel landscapes. Lenoir used to collect the scraps of pastels the painter had thrown away, to try to make his own drawings on paper. At one time, when that painter saw Lenoir collecting the scraps he gave him a number of pastel crayons, which Lenoir used till they were completely finished.
Although Lenoir wanted to become a painter, he knew that his parents would not support such a vocation, so he decided to become a teacher. He left Fouras, and went to study at the Teacher’s College in La Rochelle. After graduating from the college, Lenoir became a maître d’études (study master), and then a teacher at a secondary school, the Lycée in Rochefort. Nevertheless, Lenoir could not overcome his desire to study art and become a painter, so he began to put money aside from his modest salary in order to pursue his dream. After saving enough money, Lenoir moved to Paris in 1883. He took with him a letter of recommendation from Bouguereau’s uncle Eugène Bouguereau, who was the parish priest of Notre Dame in Rochefort.
In August of that same year, Lenoir was accepted at the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris. He became a student of Bouguereu as well Tony Robert-Fleury (1837-1911), the well-known academic painter who specialized in history and genre scenes. Like all aspiring artists, Lenoir tried to win the prestigious, yet grueling, Prix de Rome competition (Rome Prize) organized by the École des Beaux-Arts. He made it four times to the final part of the competition, where it was customary that each of the final ten competitors would be confined to a loge (competition cell) for 72 days to complete their work of a history painting. Finally, in 1889, Lenoir was awarded the Second Grand Prix de Rome for his Jésus et le paralytique (Jesus and a Sick Man with Palsy), and in 1890, he won the Second Grand Prix de Rome, first grade for Le Reniement de Saint Pierre (The Denial of St. Peter).
Lenoir made his debut at the Paris Salon in 1887. At first he exhibited mostly portraits, but focused later on genre paintings, as well as religious and mythological subjects. While he painted according to the academic teachings at this early stage of his career, he experimented with several other styles. Louis Tider-Toutant cites two examples: the first one being of a painting depicting a garret scene that was inspired by a song written by Pierre-Jean de Béranger (1780-1857), which evoked touches of Romanticism. The second is La Musette (Girl Playing a Country Bag-Pipe, 1908), which was reproduced in color for the cover of the French journal L’Illustration in 1908. That painting reflected his tendency at the time to render his paintings with a charm and grace “reminiscent of the eighteenth century French school of art.” (Trebbi, pgs. 6, 8)
Soon afterwards, Lenoir devoted himself only to academic painting in the style of his teacher Bouguereau, and on which he ultimately built his reputation. His paintings came to reflect those academic values of accurate drawing, contour, and smooth paint surfaces. Like Bouguereau, his subjects included mythological, allegorical, and religious themes, as well as contemporary genre pictures. His favored images were those of beautiful women and girls, coyly erotic nudes and cupids. As the “realistic depiction of a naked model in a contemporary setting,” was acceptable during that time, Lenoir painted a number of this genre, as well as numerous female nudes set in antiquity, distant places, and from Classical mythology. (Hook and Pottimore, pg. 453) Some examples of this genre include Danseuse de Pompéi (Dancer from Pompei, 1913), Rêve de Orient (Dream of the East), Tentation (Temptation) and La Passante (The Passer-by, 1924).
There is little information about Lenoir’s private life, except that in 1900 he married Eugenie Lucchesi. Like Bouguereau, Lenoir returned each summer to his native Charente province where he and Bouguereau used to meet either in La Rochelle where Bouguereau had a home or in Fouras where Lenoir had built a house. It was in Fouras that Lenoir died and was buried on August 1, 1926. A monument was erected there for him in 1937.
Throughout his artistic career, Lenoir exhibited his works in several venues and received official recognition for his art. From 1887 until 1926, he exhibited at the Paris Salon, where he won a 3rd-class medal in 1892, for Le Grenier a Vingt Ans (The Garret at twenty years) and a 2nd-class medal in 1896 for La Mort de Sappho (The Death of Sappho). In 1900, he won a bronze medal for Le Calme (The Calm), which was a portrait of his wife. In addition, he exhibited in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil from 1918 until 1926. In 1903, Lenoir was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honor).
Lenoir’s works can be seen in several museums in France including: Musée des Beaux Art (Museum of Fine Arts), La Rochelle; Saintes Museum, Saintes; Musée D’Art et D’Histoire (Museum of Art and History), Rochefort; École Nationale Supérieure Des Beaux Art (National School of Fine Arts), Paris; Musée des Beaux Art, Niort; Musée des Beaux Art, Angers; and Musée des Beaux Art, Cognac.