A parisian bal
Jean Beraud (1849-1935)

A Parisian Bal, Ca. 1880.

Oil on canvas, H. 0.27 m; W. 0.35 m

Signed lower right: Jean Béraud.

Provenance: Private collection, New York, until 1996.

  • William Doyle Galleries, New York, European & American Paintings & Sculpture, November 6, 1996, lot 13. Illustrated cover (colour detail) and fig. 13 (in colour).
  • Patrick Offenstadt, Jean Béraud. 1849-1935. La Belle Époque, une époque rêvée. Catalogue raisonné, Cologne, 1999, p. 177, no. 193; also cited p. 172, 173. Illustrated in colour p. 176, fig. 193.

Jean Béraud was born in St. Petersburg, where his father worked as a sculptor, probably one of the many foreign artists commissioned to work on the cathedral of St. Isaac. Béraud studied under the Academic figure painter, Léon Bonnat, but quickly eschewed his master’s idealised compositions for realistic depictions of Parisian daily life. In 1873, he began to exhibit regularly at the annual Salon and soon achieved both commercial and critical success. His Parisian illustrations, painted with scrupulous precision and a discriminating eye, were favorites of an urbane and sophisticated audience. The emblematic canvas A Parisian ball shows how Jean Béraud grounded a modern and innovative artistic technique, subject matter and composition within an academic tradition, winning him the accolade of Charles Baudelaire, who described him as the “Champion of the Heroism of Modern Life”.

This painting shows the bold and confident handling of artificial light that attracted the admiration of art critics when Béraud first exhibited a soirée scene at the Paris Salon of 1878, who noted that “It is easier to treat one or other of the subjects set for the Prix de Rome than it is to paint a group of fashionable men in tail coats and young ladies in ball gowns standing in a drawing room, by the light of chandeliers and candles…it obviously needs great intelligence and a perfect understanding of chiaroscuro ” (Paul Mantz, « Le Salon », Le Temps, 1878, July 11, p. 2).

No fewer than fifteen sources of artificial light illuminate the ball room and smoking room of this fashionable belle époque Parisian hôtel particulier, where pairs of gas lights shine on every mantle piece and are reflected in large looking glasses, which also reflect the light of the chandeliers. Béraud quipped that he painted “en plein gaz”, rather than “en plein air”, noting that artificial light “simplifies and unifies colours…the great light of lamps and chandeliers produces an effect that is absolutely distinct from day scenes, namely the nearly absolute absence of even shadows. The [modern] profusion of light in nocturnal life eliminates the strong contrasts that have until our day kept painters away from depicting such scenes ” (Letter from Béraud to unknown recipient, Fondation Custodia, Collection F. Lugt, Paris).

“Such scenes” were the nocturnal social life of Paris that interested the artist whether the subjects belonged to dazzling high society or the seedier side of the city, and of which he established himself as an unobtrusive observer. Béraud was particularly interested in depicting activities surrounding the spectacle rather than the spectacle itself, and the present composition places the artist and viewer in a corner of the smoking room, where he can observe the men who have left the ballroom to slouch in the more private, masculine interior. Their relaxed poses and conversations contrast to the stiff formality glimpsed in the ballroom, to which the viewer’s gaze is directed by another observer, the man who stand in this doorway, watching and perhaps preparing his plunge into the crowd of pastel tulle. In the dark, burgundy smoking room, the only feminine presence is the bust on the mantelpiece but women dressed in pink, sky blue and yellow dominate the sky blue, cream and gilded neo-rococo ball room. The artist thus make a wry commentary on the relations between the genders using composition and divisions of colour and space.