Volume 21, Issue 1 | Spring 2022

Théodule Ribot (1823–1891):
Une délicieuse obscurité

Reviewed by Edward Payne

Théodule Ribot (1823–1891): Une délicieuse obscurité
Musée des Augustins, Toulouse
October 16, 2021–January 10, 2022

Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille
February 10–May 15, 2022

Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen
June 11–October 2, 2022

Emmanuelle Delapierre, Luc Georget, Axel Hémery, Dominique Lobstein, Louise Sangla, and Gabriel Weisberg,
Théodule Ribot: Une délicieuse obscurité.
256 pp.; 135 color illus.; chronology; notes; bibliography; index.
ISBN: 978–2–35906–353–0

Cooks and kitchens; raw fish and bloody meat; eggs whole, cracked, and fried; vessels polished and rough (figs. 1–3). These are some of the unassuming protagonists, sculpted in paint, by the nineteenth-century realist painter Théodule Ribot. A major travelling exhibition devoted to this artist is a welcome initiative, one ambitiously undertaken by the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen. Long overshadowed by the towering figures of Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, and Jean-François Millet, Ribot here emerges not as a lone star, but as part of a wider constellation of artists, a painter whose realism is defined by its resonance with tradition and contemporaneity, history and the everyday. Beyond a mere retrospective, then, Théodule Ribot (1823–1891): Une délicieuse obscurité subtly challenges the genre of a monographic exhibition and the artificial tendency to abstract a painter’s work from its artistic sources and contexts. Ribot, in this show, does not perform a solo act, but sings in concert with his predecessors and contemporaries. The version seen by this reviewer was the Toulouse presentation, whose atmospheric setting in the former chapel of the Augustinian convent offered a dramatic backdrop for these works while the rest of the museum remained closed for renovation (fig. 4).

figure 1
Fig. 1, Théodule Ribot, A Leg of Lamb, 1870–80. Oil on canvas. Musée Hébert, La Tranche (on deposit from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Artwork in the public domain; image courtesy of Didier Descouens. Available from: Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org.
figure 2
Fig. 2, Théodule Ribot, Still Life with Fried Eggs, ca. 1880–87. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie, Senlis. Artwork in the public domain; image courtesy of Didier Descouens. Available from: Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org.
figure 3
Fig. 3, Théodule Ribot, Still Life with Eggs, ca. 1875. Oil on canvas. Private collection, Toronto. Artwork in the public domain; image courtesy of Didier Descouens. Available from: Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org.
figure 4
Fig. 4, Installation view of the section “In Ribot’s Kitchen,” Musée des Augustins, Toulouse. Photograph by the author.

Organized thematically rather than chronologically, the exhibition encompassed eighty-two paintings: fifty by Ribot; nineteen by his contemporaries, including his son and daughter; and thirteen by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century artists. Innovatively, the curators made explicit their curatorial strategy in the introductory text, signposting the color scheme employed to distinguish between the different artists: paintings by Ribot were displayed on a black background, paintings by his contemporaries were accompanied by pink labels, and paintings by Old Masters were flagged with green labels. This simple yet effective design immediately clarified the display for visitors without distracting from the works or narrative.

The exhibition was divided into three overarching sections: “In Ribot’s Kitchen,” “Under Ribot’s Scalpel,” and “History Painting.” The first section comprised a single part, “Still Lifes and Cooks,” while the latter two sections were split into two parts each. A parenthetical section featuring Ribot’s landscapes, aptly titled “Interlude,” followed a subsection dedicated to “Concerts and Gatherings.” The accompanying catalogue adopts a parallel structure, preceded by a suite of three essays that strike a balance of coverage and voices: the US art historian Gabriel Weisberg offers an overview of Ribot’s life and works, the French specialist Dominique Lobstein traces the early collecting history of Ribot’s paintings, and the doctoral student Louise Sangla explores the French taste for Spanish painting during the nineteenth century.

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Fig. 5, Théodule Ribot, Self-Portrait, ca. 1887–90. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Colombes (on deposit from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Artwork in the public domain; image courtesy of Didier Descouens. Available from: Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org.

An atypical work by Ribot opened the exhibition: his arresting Self-Portrait, on deposit from the Musée d’Orsay at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Colombes (fig. 5). Rivalling three large wall texts for attention, this remarkable painting served both an illustrative and didactic function. It provided a face to the name of an artist who is relatively unfamiliar for a general audience, and it foreshadowed a later section by demonstrating how the painter wields his brush like a scalpel. Surprisingly few visitors paused to inspect the facture of this canvas, and the notable manner with which the artist captured his austere expression: the furrowed brow, aquiline nose, bushy moustache, and slight glint in his eye. Ribot was not celebrated as a portraitist, and indeed the section dedicated to “Portraits in Life and at Work” conveyed his rather ambivalent attitude toward the genre. Family members posed as models for the artist’s scenes of daily life, which culminated in a fusion of portraiture and genre painting.

figure 6
Fig. 6, Théodule Ribot, The Accountant Cook, 1862. Oil on canvas. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille. Photo © Ville de Marseille, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean Bernard.

Emphasizing the social dimension of Ribot’s realism, the structure of the exhibition suggested a subversion of the hierarchy of the genres. Visitors entered Ribot’s world, or more precisely, Ribot’s “kitchen,” by first encountering the still-life paintings and images of cooks for which he became renowned. Although slightly dwarfed by their neighbors, pride of place was given to The Accountant Cook (1862, fig. 6), which conflates the artist’s fascination with cooks and money, and The Chef’s Party (1861), which depicts the various episodes that unfold in a large kitchen. The exhibition implicitly drew a parallel between the kitchen and the studio, two discreet spaces of production where meals are prepared and paintings are conceived.‍[1] The display of these works offered a seamless transition to the subsequent section, which focused on everyday protagonists, including musicians and singers. Landscapes followed, with history paintings at the end, representing religious, literary, and philosophical subjects. Articulating the character of Ribot’s wider production, paintings of still lifes, cooks, and genre scenes comprised the majority of works in the exhibition. As the visitor progressed through the rooms, ascending the hierarchy of the genres, the paintings gradually increased in size. Occasionally, paintings from one section spilled into another. This was somewhat confusing for the visitor, and the problem might have been resolved by using slightly different wall colors for each section—a device deployed for the landscape “interlude”—thereby subtly indicating when a particular theme was concluding or continuing. Furthermore, some sections served as curatorial “hinges” but were not flagged as such. For instance, the paintings of three Jews, a sermon, and chorists by Ribot shared the same space as his painting of a monk, a Magdalene in prayer by José María Rodríguez de Losada, and a prophet by the Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds. These works neither belonged to the previous section on genre painting, nor to the adjacent section on history painting. Indeed, The Choir (ca. 1880–90) would have been in better company with the other depictions of singers and musicians.

A number of paintings by Ribot were arranged in pairs and trios, creating the effect of secular diptychs and triptychs. Some works were pushed into the corners, however, and would have benefitted from being centered on the wall, reinforcing Ribot’s central position in the show. Paintings by such major artists as Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Courbet, and Millet were sensibly shifted to the margins, serving not as anchors but supports. For the non-specialist visitor, works by nineteenth-century artists who are not household names were a stimulating discovery. Joseph Bail’s images of kitchen boys masquerading as adults—smoking, drinking, and playing cards—introduced a playful theatricality (fig. 7). Antoine Vollon’s painting of eggs impressed with its textured passages of impasto on an earthenware jug and frying pan (fig. 8). The leitmotif of eggs in the exhibition invoked the specter of Diego Velázquez and his bodegones (kitchen or tavern scenes), which were conspicuously absent. Although cited as one of Ribot’s sources in the opening text, Rembrandt and Dutch art were also nowhere to be seen. Zurbarán, too, was mentioned in the gallery text devoted to still lifes, but his name was dropped somewhat misleadingly, as a still life by the son, Juan, rather than the father, Francisco, made an appearance. Jusepe de Ribera did not surface until the end of the exhibition, represented by his celebrated Democritus (1630), on loan from the Prado, and a workshop painting of Saint Sebastian. Displayed on a vista, Ribera’s grinning beggar-philosopher was the second to last work in the show, perhaps positioned here for emphasis, but treated almost as an afterthought. The profound connection between Ribera and Ribot could have been made earlier on in the exhibition, not only in words, but also with works.

figure 7
Fig. 7, Joseph Bail, The Card Players, ca. 1897. Oil on canvas. Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Paris. Artwork in the public domain; available from: Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org.
figure 8
Fig. 8, Antoine Vollon, Eggs, n.d. Oil on canvas. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon. Artwork in the public domain; image courtesy of Didier Descouens. Available from: Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org.

Indeed, while the art of Ribera was rejected explicitly by Manet and implicitly by Courbet, it was revived simultaneously by Ribot, whom Émile Zola claimed has “added nothing to art; he has not said anything in his own words; he has revealed to us neither a heart nor a profession.”‍[2] Although he used Ribot more as a foil to promote the art of Manet, Zola’s critique nevertheless raises pertinent questions about what it meant for artists to speak in “their own words” in the nineteenth century. One critic, writing in 1865, considered that Ribot “has the most violent temperament in the French school, and he seems to have painted this year with a chisel.”‍[3] Of Ribot’s Saint Sebastian, Martyr (fig. 9), exhibited at the Salon of 1865, Ernest Chesneau declared that “it was in the same spirit as Ribeira; as powerful as, if not more powerful than, Ribeira [sic].”‍[4] The latter’s Saint Sebastian Tended by the Holy Women (ca. 1620–23) in the Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao, may have been Ribot’s original source, translated in reverse, as Ribot could have seen Ribera’s painting in Paris, where it was displayed in the private collection of Marshal Soult from 1809 to 1851. He could also have been familiar with it through an etching published in Achille Reveil’s Musée de peinture (1828).‍[5] Furthermore, the Bilbao painting may have inspired Ribot’s Torture of Alonso Cano (1867, fig. 10), though the horizontality of the latter composition, and indeed the treatment of the subject, perhaps owe more to Ribera’s Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (ca. 1628) in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, a copy of which entered the Musée de Grenoble in 1828.‍[6] Deemed by Maxime Du Camp “a slavish copy of a work by L’Espagnolet [Ribera],”‍[7] Ribot’s painting depicts a gruesome episode from the life of the Spanish artist Alonso Cano, who was wrongly accused of having murdered his wife, and was brutally tortured in order to force a confession. In spite of the seriousness of the subject, the caricaturist Cham satirized the painting, which he titled La Question and captioned: “The real question is whether these people have ever taken a bath. I doubt it.”‍[8]

figure 9
Fig. 9, Théodule Ribot, Saint Sebastian, Martyr, 1865. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski.
figure 10
Fig. 10, Théodule Ribot, The Torture of Alonso Cano, 1867. Oil on canvas. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen. Artwork in the public domain; image courtesy of Didier Descouens. Available from: Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org.

Echoing the introductory section, the exhibition closed with an atypical work: a grisaille painting of Heraclitus (n.d.), the weeping philosopher. A pendant to Ribera’s laughing Democritus, the painting’s graphic character recalled Ribot’s works on paper, which unfortunately could not be included. Prints, drawings, and ephemera would have added both texture and context to the show, but there was an overriding challenge of securing works on paper for a three-venue exhibition (19). In spite of its focus on painting alone, the show was not purist in conception. Works by anonymous artists and lesser-known figures were juxtaposed with paintings by major artists. While this was a refreshing feature, at times the selection was rather uneven in quality and begged the question of why certain works were on view. It seemed that the practicalities and sheer convenience of displaying works from the collections of the organizing museums may have outweighed the criteria of quality or relevance. Given the emphasis on situating Ribot within a broader artistic context, the exhibition might have concluded with a painting by Chaïm Soutine, mentioned in one of the opening wall texts, in order to demonstrate Ribot’s legacy as a painter of cooks. Overall, the exhibition was a tremendous accomplishment, assembling national and international loans during a global pandemic from across France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, the UK, the US, and Canada. Visitors to the Marseille and Caen venues can look forward to discovering the intimate and dynamic paintings of Théodule Ribot alongside his influences and contemporaries. A painter whose skill and reputation transcend the tenebrist pastiche, Ribot’s modest mark in art history is matched by the unassuming power of his brush.


Translations from cited authors.

[1] On the relationship between cooks and artists, kitchens and studios, see Frédérique Desbuissons, “The Studio and the Kitchen: Culinary Ugliness as Pictorial Stigmatisation in Nineteenth-Century France,” in Ugliness: The Non-Beautiful in Art and Theory, ed. Andrei Pop and Mechtild Widrich (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014), 104–21; Julia Csergo and Frédérique Desbuissons, eds., Le cuisinier et l’art. Art du cuisinier et cuisine d’artiste, XVIe–XXIe siècle (Paris: Éditions de l’Institut national d’histoire de l’art; Chartres: Menu Fretin, 2018).

[2] “M. Ribot n’a rien ajouté à l’art, il n’a pas dit son mot propre, il ne nous a pas révélé un cœur et une chair.” Émile Zola, Mon Salon, augmenté d’une dédicace et d’un appendice (Paris, 1866), 53. Gabriel P. Weisberg, The Realist Tradition: French Painting and Drawing, 1830–1900, exh. cat. (Cleveland, OH: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1980), 3.

[3] “il a le tempérament le plus violent de l’école française, et semble avoir peint cette année avec un ébauchoir.” Vincent de Jankovitz, Étude sur le Salon de 1865 (Besançon, 1865), 51. Michael Fried, Manet’s Modernism or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 239.

[4] “Dans le même esprit que Ribeira, c’est aussi fort sinon plus fort que Ribeira.” Le Constitutionnel, May 9, 1865. Gary Tinterow and Geneviève Lacambre et al., Manet/Velázquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting, exh. cat. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003), 516.

[5] Tinterow and Lacambre, Manet/Velázquez, cat. 59, 442.

[6] Tinterow and Lacambre, Manet/Velázquez, cat. 196, 517.

[7] “d’une copie servile d’une toile de l’Espagnolet.” Maxime Du Camp, Les beaux-arts à l’Exposition universelle et aux Salons de 1863, 1864, 1865, 1866 et 1867 (Paris, 1867), 263. Tinterow and Lacambre, Manet/Velázquez, cat. 196, 517.

[8] “La véritable question est de savoir si ces gens-là ont jamais pris un bain. J’en doute.” Cham au Salon de 1867 (Paris, 1867), 1281. Tinterow and Lacambre, Manet/Velázquez, cat. 196, 517.