D'origine modeste, Victor Gilbert est placé en 1860 comme apprenti chez un peintre décorateur. Il suit, le soir, des cours d’art sous la direction du Père Levasseur, à l’École de la Ville de Paris. Il débute au Salon des artistes français de 1873. Vers la fin des années 1870, son goût pour le naturalisme s'affirme et il se tourne vers la peinture de genre avec des scènes de rues, de cafés, de marchés, en particulier celui des Halles. Il obtient une médaille de seconde classe au Salon de 1880 et une médaille d’argent à l’Exposition universelle de 1889. Il devient sociétaire de la Société des artistes français en 1914.
Victor Gilbert est nommé chevalier de la Légion d’honneur en 1897, et reçoit le prix Léon Bonnat en 1926.
La halle aux poissons, le matin (1880), Palais des beaux-arts de Lille.
Durant la Belle Époque, les trottoirs de Paris étaient peuplés de marchands de toutes sortes. Témoin de son temps, Victor Gilbert s'intéresse à la stature et fierté des travailleurs des Halles, aux marchés de Paris et de la province. Ses bols de soupe fumante, ce bœuf dépecé, sa vision d’une grande sensibilité ne masquent en rien la dureté de la vie quotidienne.
Les critiques[Lesquels ?] de l’époque disent de lui « La peinture de Victor Gilbert chante le travail au grand jour (…) elle n’exalte que les labeurs honnêtes. Elle est vivante et bien moderne, pleine d’exubérance et de force, avec des raffinements et des délicatesses de tons d’une habilité et d’une souplesse qui sentent la maîtrise.[réf. nécessaire] »
Victor Gilbert aime tout autant peindre la fraîcheur et gaîté de l’enfance à Paris ou en province. Ses couleurs sont paisibles, reposante aux harmonies heureuses. Durant cette période, enfin le statut de l’enfant évolue. Le mariage arrangé fait place petit à petit au mariage par amour, qui va sacraliser le nouveau-né. Victor Gilbert peint remarquablement cette période de l’enfant-roi… qui croise celui qui mendie.
Primé au Salon des artistes français, reconnu comme un personnage illustre de son temps[réf. nécessaire], Victor Gilbert est reçu dans les milieux mondains. Son élégance naturelle[réf. nécessaire] en fait un invité de choix. Il témoignera également de ces moments de fêtes qui marquèrent la Belle époque.
La halle aux poissons, le matin, 1880, Palais des beaux-arts de Lille
Le carreau des Halles, 1880, musée Malraux au Havre
The mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the introduction of art based on daily life, a depiction of everything from the street vendors to the homeless in and around France. Artists were often deeply embroiled in the social issues of the time and sought to free themselves from the imposing historicism that had stifled art production for decades. The movement known as “Realism” found supporters in the progressive art critic Jules Castagnary and artists such as Victor Gilbert promoted a realistic display of modern life in its many permutations. Gilbert became one of the artists who carried Realism further into the twentieth century and who also fell under the influence of the Impressionist movement by searching for new methods of representation, often less gritty than his earliest work.
Victor-Gabriel Gilbert was born February 13, 1847 in Paris, just shortly before the 1848 Revolution which brought about reforms in the Salon system that allowed more artists to introduce new work. Since Gilbert’s parents did not have enough money to send him to the École des Beaux-Arts for training, the typical route for aspiring artists, he instead began working as an apprentice at thirteen to Eugène Adam, a painter decorator. At night he would also take lessons at the École de la Ville de Paris, which was his only form of official artistic training. As many of the École des Beaux-Arts ateliers relied on a more rigidly academic form of training and style of painting, his lack of extensive studies may have forced him to look towards daily life for his inspiration.
Gilbert debuted at the Salon of 1873 with Les Apprêts du Diner (Preparing Dinner) and Avant le Bal (Before the Ball), just a year before the Impressionist group showed their paintings at the first “Impressionist” exhibition at the photographer Nadar’s studio. During the mid 1870s Gilbert was supported financially by Père Martin who owned an art shop on the rue Lafitte and who was an important supporter of the Impressionist movement and the promotion of young and promising artists. He secured several of Gilbert’s works for himself and in return, Gilbert executed Portrait of Mme. M…(Portrait of Madame M…), which was exhibited at the 1875 Salon. From then on Gilbert was well-established enough as a painter that he no longer had to complete decorative work for textile manufacturers (The Realist Tradition: French Painting and Drawing 1830-1900, ex. cat., Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1980, pg. 294). Many artists came to rely more and more on art dealers for sale of their images. Martin’s sponsorship of Gilbert’s work helped in the dissemination of his realist images; making him more popular with a larger audience that continued to respond to these easily recognizable and understandable images. This also placed Gilbert among some of the most progressive artists of the period.
Early in his career Gilbert focused on still lifes but towards the end of the he turned more and more towards typical themes of Realism. He became the painter of Les Halles, an area in Paris that still exists today but which then was a center for street vendors and markets, a busy and bustling area of Paris. Many of these scenes were fish markets, and one of his works, that of Un Coin de la Halle aux Poissons; le matin (A Corner of the Fish Market; morning), exhibited at the 1880 Salon, garnered him his first medal, a second-class award; it was also purchased by the State. “Since Gilbert was familiar with Naturalist literature, specifically with the novels of Émile Zola, he was aware of the author’s view of Les Halles as a symbol of the dynamism and energy of Paris,” a point explained in The Realist Tradition (pg. 217) suggesting that Gilbert was equally interested in combining literary texts with his compositions and was inspired by literature as well as daily life for the execution of his compositions. It is further noted that (The Realist Tradition, pg. 221):
Victor Gilbert’s ability to capture different work activities and social types is another aspect of his style. Gilbert’s frequent visits to Les Halles enabled him to witness many activities. Stressing the actuality of the scene, his visual description helped make him the renowned master of Les Halles by 1885.
Gilbert had created a niche for himself and for his work in the realistic depiction of the aspects of Parisian life; he had also become popular with the State as not only was his 1880 painting purchased by them, but his 1884 (Porteurs de Viande - Meat Haulers) Salon entry was as well. As his style progressed, Gilbert did not neglect solely bourgeois scenes, such as Marché aux Fleurs (Flower Market), linking him more intimately with Impressionist painters, especially Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his interest in beautiful bourgeois women taking part in their leisurely activities, paintings that were a far cry from the work of many of the earlier Realists. With this shift in theme, Gilbert also moved towards a lighter toned palette, instead of the dark palette reminiscent of earlier Realists such as Théodule Ribot and François Bonvin.
Gilbert continued to submit regularly to the Salon until 1933. In 1926 he received the Prix Bonnat. Earlier in his career, in 1897, he was also named Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and was also a Salon juror at one point. Gilbert died on July 21st, 1935, and is now buried at the Montmartre cemetery in Paris.
Victor Gilbert was not only influenced by Realism, but also by Impressionism. His life and Salon career lived through a period of consistent stylistic transitions, influenced by the times. His early career was preoccupied by Realist themes, scenes of daily life, but as the Impressionist had made there mark and La Belle Époque had come and gone, he moved more towards genre scenes including elegant bourgeois women and family, and especially young children, devoid of the gritty and less “picturesque” vision of daily life. As more of Gilbert’s works become known, perhaps further influences will come to light and the oeuvre of this artist will become even more diverse.
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