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Bernard Boutet de Monvel: The Beau Monde’s Chic Portraitist

By : Alex Aubry
Bernard Boutet de Monvel: The Beau Monde’s Chic Portraitist

Although his name may have faded into history, Bernard Boutet de Monvel was not only a major figure of the Art Déco movement between the wars, but also painted some of the most stylish figures of the 20th century. On April 5th 2016, Sotheby’s auctioned the contents of de Monvel’s mansion and studio located in Paris’ chic 7th arrondissement. The artist, whose sophisticated and modern portraits had a photographic quality, was celebrated within chic circles in Europe and the United States. He befriended and collaborated with the great artists and designers of the era such as Jean Michel Frank, from whom de Monvel commissioned several pieces of furniture for his home.

 

Born in Paris on August 9, 1884, de Monvel was the son of the noted painter and children's book illustrator Maurice Boutet de Monvel. He set his sights on becoming a painter from the age of sixteen, initially training under his father before attending the École des Beaux Arts and studying with the painter Luc-Olivier Merson. Early on he developed a unique style, where he would begin each painting by lightly drawing onto the canvas with a ruler and compass, which gave his portraits a linear quality. De Monvel also gained a reputation as an accomplished fashion illustrator, attracting the attention of the couturier Paul Poiret, who in 1912 invited him to create illustrations for the fashion publication Journal des Dames et des Modes, which was founded by Poiret and Tommaso Antogini. He would also work for Vogue, before being signed to an exclusive contract with Harper’s Bazaar from 1925-33.

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In 1920, he joined La Compagnie des Arts Français shortly after it was established in 1919. Founded by noted French artist, architect and decorator Louis Süe together with fellow painter and designer Charles André Mare, the company was instrumental in introducing the Art Déco style to Paris’ chic circles through their art, furniture and interiors. Amongst his memorable projects was collaborating on the interiors of the couturier Jean Patou’s hôtel particulier. The pair had first met while stationed together in Macedonia during World War I, and in addition to creating a drawing of Patou (the only non-photographic portrait known to exist of the couturier), de Monvel illustrated many of his advertising campaigns.

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The artist’s first trip to New York in 1926 would mark a turning point in his career. Becoming much in demand amongst America’s café society for his talents as a portraitist, he soon found himself frequently crossing the Atlantic for the next two decades. Similar to the role of jewelers and couturiers, the society portraitists and photographers of the era flattered grand personalities by smoothing the fine line between illusion and reality.

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Charming, amusing and always elegantly dressed, de Monvel moved within the same circles as many of his clients, becoming friends with Fricks, du Ponts, Astors, Whitneys and Vanderbilts. Seen from the front or in profile, de Monvel’s portraits of society figures such as Lady Charles Mendl (Elsie de Wolfe), the Marquis de Cuevas, and the Maharajah and Maharani of Indore, were often described as “icy.” Beautifully composed and rendered in his signature near-photographic style with clean outlines, smooth tonal gradations and muted colors, his portraits were meant to project status rather than reveal the inner personality of the subject.

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Throughout his life, de Monvel lived and entertained as lavishly as his clients. Loathing hotels, at one point he owned five houses in cities he traveled to regularly for work. His most well known property, after his Paris home with its octagonal mirrored room, was his house and studio in Palm Beach. By the 1900s, noted society portraitists and photographers such as Sir Oswald Birley and Cecil Beaton, had established studios in Palm Beach. The choice of the American Riviera as a location for their ‘resort ateliers’ was a strategic decision, as their clients typically had more time to pose while on vacation.

 

De Monvel first came to Palm Beach in 1936 as a houseguest of Mary Benjamin Rogers, the wife of Standard Oil heir Henry H. Rogers Jr., and within a month began planning his own house and studio. He hired the Palm Beach society-architect Maurice Fatio, stipulating that he wanted a winter home with a purely geometric layout, complete privacy and plenty of northerly light. When it was completed in 1937, La Folie Monvel featured a central octagonal building with walls and ceilings covered in natural cypress wood, and an oak parquet floor that radiated out in an octagonal pattern. It would serve as both the artist’s studio and his living room where he would hold informal cocktail parties during the season.

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One of the last portraits the artist painted was that of Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers in 1949. The painting reveals de Monvel's mastery at capturing the satin texture and luxurious hues of the subject’s Charles James gown, as well as her glittering jewels. Roger’s mother had also been a long time patron of the artist, a reminder that de Monvel often painted generations within a family. It was while on a flight from Paris to New York to complete a new commission, that the French artist tragically died when his plane crashed on the island of São Miguel in the Azores on October 28, 1949, leaving behind an intriguing legacy that is only now being rediscovered by a new generation of style connoisseurs.

 

Charming, amusing and always elegantly dressed, de Monvel moved within the same circles as many of his clients.