Georges De Bellio, A Romanian Witness To The History Of The Painting Olympia

The year 1863 was full of events that had a significant impact on the artistic world of Paris. On the 24th of July, the new rule of the annual Salon, organized in the Palace of Industry, was announced. The rules were perceived as a way of waving the jury, formed only by members of the Institute. The Marshal Vaillant became minister of Belle Arte, taking the place of count Walewski, while Nieuwerkerke got the position of general superintendent.Every artist had the right of sending two pieces of his work and those refused by the jury were allowed to show their work in the annex rooms.On the 13th of August, Eugene Delacroix, the unchallenged master of the Romantic school, was passing away.For Edouard Manet, whose painting Déjeuner sur l'herbe, shown in the Salon annexes, had stirred a huge scandal and had brought, instead of reputation, a sulphonic fame to the author, the year 1863 was also the moment of legalizing his relationship with Suzanne Leenhoff, whom he had met in 1850. The same year, 1863, represented the final brush on Olympia, a painting that reminded, in a way, of Titian's Venus of Urbino and which especially echoed the poetry of his friend, Charles Baudelaire. Victorine Meurent, an attractive young woman, also a painter, served as a model. She also appeared as a central character, in Déjeuner sur l'herbe, as well as in several other works.Affected by the calumnious reception of his painting, criticized by specialists as well as by the public, Edouard Manet (following the advice of Zacharias Astruc) sent Olympia as late as at the 1865 edition of the Salon.The second painting that Manet sent to the Salon was Jésus insulte.The scandal roused by Déjeuner sur l'herbe seemed almost meaningless in comparison with the terrible noise that started immediately after the Salon opening (on the 1st of May). The jury didn't reject the paintings, as it originally intended, wanting to offer the public a practical example of "ignoble lucubrations." If the critics said about Jésus insulte that it introduced the comic in religious painting, comparing the characters with the workers of Paris canals, Jesus being a patchy vagrant advised to wash his feet, the public's reaction to Olympia was terrible. In order for the painting not to be destroyed by the Salon's visitors, it was moved above a door, at an inaccessible height. "The crowd was flowing in front of the decomposing Olympia as if they had been at the city morgue." The comment belongs to Paul de Saint-Victor, a well known critic of that time, but all the newspapers wrote for weeks in a row about Manet's painting and there were also caricatures describing in all sort of ways "Venus with the cat." No critic defended Manet in public, but his fame grew so much that Degas said, one day: "Here you are, as famous as Garibaldi." It wasn't but two years later, in 1869, that Emile Zola published the article "Une nouvelle manière en peinture," regarding Olympia as a masterpiece. The text was later on reproduced as a brochure, with the author's portrait (done by Manet in 1868). In this portrait, the brochure appears among the books on the writer's table, and there is a photo of Olympia's on the wall, next to a graphic picture of Velasquez' Los Barrachos.Olympia remained in the painter's work-shop until he died, on the 30th of April 1883, following a locomotor ataxia that had started to show since 1877, an illness that caused him atrocious pain during his last months. On the 19th of April, the doctors were forced to amputate his left foot because of gangrene. Manet turned down the few offers of selling the painting. It was shown, along with other 115 of his works at a retrospective exhibition organized at the Melpomene room at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, between the 5th and the 29th of January 1884. A few days after the exhibition was closed (its catalogue had been introduced by Emile Zola), the works were sold at an auction at Hotel Druot. Mrs. Suzanne Manet remained the owner of Olympia. The canvas was also exhibited along with other of Manet's works on the occasion of the Universal Exhibition, in 1889, following the initiative of Antonin Proust. The same year, Claude Monet launched a list of subscriptions for the purchase of Olympia, with the purpose of donating it to the state, in order to be shown, some day, at the Louvre. It took almost a year to accomplish his idea. The first one responding to Monet's initiative was his long time friend and supporter, the Romanian doctor Georges de Bellio (1828-1894).Belonging to a well-off family originated south of the Danube, in Macedonia, but established since the late 18th century in Wallachia, Georges de Bellio came to Paris in 1851 in order to follow his medical studies. A great art lover and knowledgeable collector, Georges de Bellio took part, in 1874, in the auction of Ernest Hoschede's painting collection. The latter was formed by the works of the French school masters (Corot, Courbet and Diaz) and also had a series of canvases belonging to the young Impressionist painters. He bought Claude Monet's painting, Seine at Argenteuil and continued to purchase, in the following years, other works of Monet's, whom he supported with never failing generosity. He also bought paintings belonging to Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Berthe Morisot and Degas. That's how he gathered, in only a few years' time, a collection of Impressionist paintings in which significant canvases of these artists were to be found, having been selected with perfect taste and skill. Among the 37 paintings of Monet's, there was also the famous Impression, soleil levant.Georges de Bellio knew and appreciated the work of E. Manet, whom he had often visited at his work-shop and from whom he had bought 8 canvases, paintings in oil and pastel. He was called, as a doctor, to consult the painter and was present, next to the doctors Siredey, Marjolini, Verneuil and Tillaux, on the 25th of March 1883, when the amputation of Manet's leg was decided, following afterwards, with anxiety and pain, the rapid evolution of the illness. When the painter was gone, his widow offered Georges de Bellio, in the memory of the friend Manet, a portrait of Berthe Morisot.The letter addressed by Georges de Bellio to Claude Monet, dated the 16th of July, is a proof of the admiration and trust that he felt towards the work of Olympia's author:"Puisse cette idée, dont vous avez été le promoteur, faire son chemin et aboutir à un bon résultat. Elle aura le triple mérite d'être un juste tribut d'hommage rendu à la mémoire de ce pauvre cher Manet, de venir en aide d'une façon discrète à sa veuve, et en fin de conserver à la France une oeuvre vraiment valeureuse. J'espère qu'il n'en sera jamais ainsi de vous et que vous verrez l'Etat vous acheter de votre vivant des toiles. Je n'en veux d'autre prévue que le très grand et très légitime succès que vous venez de remporter à votre dernière exposition."Georges de Bellio attached to his letter a cheque of 1000 Francs. The gesture of the Romanian doctor and collector needs no further emphasis, yet in order to perceive its correct significance at a time when Manet's work was still stirring animosity and protests, let us recall that two of the painter's great friends, Emile Zola and Antonin Proust, refused to participate in this subscription. The motivation of this attitude was and remained a paradox. Zola thought that he had defended Manet enough and labeled Monet's initiative as being generated by the gang spirit and the desire for publicity. A. Proust, who certainly often bravely supported Manet, thought that Olympia didn't deserve a place at the Louvre. He finally sent 500 Francs. Toulouse Lautrec, known in the art-world as a character who could afford every whim, sent 100 Francs in order to "pay for a small piece of Olympia," as he mentioned in his letter to Monet.The sum of 20,000 F, originally announced, was collected by the end of 1890 and Monet began the negotiations with the administrative bureau through a letter addressed, on February the 7th, to Falleres, the minister of Public Instruction. As this document is little known, we took the liberty of reproducing fragments of its content: "Monsieur le Ministre,Au nom d'un groupe de souscripteurs, j'ai l'honneur d'offrir à l'Etat l'Olympia d'Edouard Manet. Nous sommes certains d'être ici, les représentants et les interprètes d'un grand nombre d'artistes, d'écrivains et d'amateurs, qui ont reconnu depuis longtemps déjà quelle place considérable doit tenir dans l'histoire du siècle le peintre prématurement enlevé à son art et à son pays (…) De l'aveu de la grande majorité de ceux qui s'intéressent à la peinture française, le role d'Edouard Manet a été utile et décissive. Non seulement il a joué un grand role individuel, mais il a été de plus, le représentant d'une grande et féconde évolution.Il nous a donc paru impossible qu'une telle oeuvre n'eût pas sa place dans nos collections nationales, que le maître n'eût pas ses entrées la où sont déjà les disciples. Nous avons, de plus, considéré avec inquiètude le movement incessant du marché artistique, la concurrence (d'achat) qui nous est faite par l'Amérique, le départ, facile a prévoir, pour un autre continent, de tant d'oeuvres d'art qui sont la joie et la gloire de France. Nous avons voulu retenir une des toiles les plus caractéristiques d'Edouard Manet, celle où il apparaît en pleine lutte victorieuse, maître de sa vision et de son métier.C'est l'Olympia que nous remettons entre vos mains, Monsieur le Ministre. Notre désir est de la voir prendre place au Louvre, à sa date, parmi les productions de l'école française. Si les reglements s'opposent à cette entrée immediate, (…) nous estimons que le musée du Luxembourg est tout indiqué pour recevoir l'Olympia et lq garder jusqu'à l'échéance prochaine." The follow-up of this story is well known. The discussions with the authorities took several months and finally Olympia was accepted, though its future was imprecise. In November 1890, it was already exhibited at the LuxembourgMuseum, but it wasn't until February 1907 that Olympia was transferred to the Louvre, due to the energetic intervention of Georges Clémenceau, president of the Ministers' Council at the time (his friend, Claude Monet, insisted a lot). Georges de Bellio died on the 26th of January 1894 and his collection of Impressionist paintings, one of the first three great European collections, due to the number and quality of its works, was soon dissipated. A part of these canvases were given to his daughter, Victorine (married in 1893 to E. Donop de Monchy), who kept them until 1957 and then donated them to the MarmottanMuseum in Paris.Along with the priceless canvases, the Museum also received the doctor's archives. Among numerous documents, essential to the history of the Impressionist movement, one can find there a rich correspondence signed by Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro.The Donop de Monchy donation transformed a museum that its founders destined to Napoleon Bonaparte's age into a unique center of research of Impressionist painting, considered by Valéry as being the most consistent of France's contributions to the development of universal art, after the productions of the Middle Ages.Georges de Bellio's name is mentioned in every great history of the Impressionist period, from Theodore Duret to John Rewald, and most of his correspondence with the artists was published, its research starting in 1924. The Romanian art historian Remus Niculescu, who had the chance of talking to Victorine Donop de Monchy and got the permission of studying Bellio's archives at the Marmottan Museum, found letters that hadn't been discovered by that time in the archives of the Durand-Ruel Gallery, as well as in the Nederland Institute in Paris. They were included in his consistent study – Georges de Bellio, l'ami des impressionistes, first to be published in 1964. The work reflects the complex personality of Georges de Bellio and underlines the moral and material support that the Romanian doctor offered the Impressionist painters at the difficult time of their career debut.In 2003, 175 years from the birth of Georges de Bellio were celebrated. It was an opportunity to remind nowadays' generations of the great merits of this man of refined culture who proved a special sensitivity and a flawless taste in appreciating art works. 

by Plural magazine