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Guillaume Seignac was a student of William Adolph Bouguereau and Jeune femme denudée sur canape is a perfect example of their shared academic style. The dimensions of this painting are not known, but Seignac painted other very similar paintings, one of which is Dreaming, with the same model, pose and setting. The size of that canvas, painted in oil is 18 inches x 21.5; the similar L'Odalisque Aux Colombes is 21 inches by 25.5 inches. Jeune femme denudée sur canape is currently privately held.
Born in Rennes in 1870, the son of an artist, Seignac came of age during a tumultuous time in the art world. Paris was at the center of an art revolution when Seignac exhibited this painting at the Salon des Artistes Français in 1914.
Seignac trained in the academic style of the Ecole des Beaux-arts embracing the classical subjects and invisible brushwork required by the academy. Jeune femme depicts his preferred subject, the idealized nude female, usually in a Greek or Roman allegorical setting. His paintings were usually of women embodying an abstract concept like “Innocence,” “Confidence” or “Abandon” along with traditional academic classical figures such as Venus and Cupid and Psyche. The classical paintings of Greek goddesses were most often set in lush, column-filled landscapes. Jeune femme, like the painting Daphne, is set indoors, where the subject reclines on neo-classical furniture.
Seingnac’s highly-esteemed professors at the Julien Academy included Gabriel Ferrier and Tony Robert-Fleury and most importantly, William Aldolph Bouguereau, an icon of academic art at the time, and one of France’s most successful painters. Undoubtedly, Seignac’s teachers, including Bouguereau, instilled in him an appreciation of the 17th-century work of one of their icons Nicolas Poussin, as well as other neo-classicists like Jacques Louis David and Jean August Ingres of the 19th century. Seignac’s training is evident in his strong drafting skills—his mastery of drawing the human form is impeccable. Having been academically educated, his emphasis is on the perfect drawing before he approaches the paint. His ability to render the figure this well was the pinnacle of an academic education. Seignac’s clear lines and composition skills, which harken back to renaissance ideals, exhibit that he is one highly trained, highly-educated painter.
The woman in Jeune femme denudée sur canape fills the canvas, presenting herself in one of Seignac’s signature poses. She is twisting, her hips turning her knees in one direction, he shoulders moving her torso the opposite direction. One leg props up the other; one shoulder supports her against the sofa while the other is relaxed. The shoulders are at an angle, and the head is tipped. This contrapposto pose creates a dynamic composition, while also paying homage to Renaissance painters like Michelangelo and other contrapposto figures like those found in the Sistine Chapel.
Another classical painting skill on display in Jeune femme is the treatment of the drapery around her hips. The fabric reveals more than it conceals, and the handling of this diaphanous transparency demonstrates Seignac’s extraordinary technical abilities. He’s creating an image to appeal to his 20th-century Parisian audience while referencing ancient Greek statues and other sources, and fifteenth-century artists like Botticelli.
Seignac masterfully flourishes his classical academic training while still knowing how to appeal to his contemporary, if artistically conservative, viewer. Consider by contrast Modigliani’s Nude on Sofa, painted the same year, with its lack of modeling of the flesh, angular features and almost abstract approach to the same subject. Artworlds were colliding at the time. In spite of this virtual war and market downturn for Academic art, Seignac’s career flourished. In 1902 he moved from his studio on Paris’s rue de Fleurus to a stylish apartment at Montparnasse, 84. This suggests that as a working artist, he maintained his client-base in Europe and the U.S. to no ill effects.
His paintings regularly won prizes at the Salon des Artistes Francaises— an honorable mention in 1900, and Third Class in 1903. Like his contemporaries in London, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and John William Godward, Seignac found an audience during changing times, not by being revolutionary, but by bringing a freshness to the academic painting tradition. Academic paintings, with clean lines of classically draped maidens in timeless settings, certainly still had their audiences and today are being rediscovered. The sensuality, art-nouveau curves and frank allure found their audience at the time in art connoisseurs who were looking for something new, but who wanted to show that they understood history and had a knowledge of antiquity. One of his clients was the most famous woman at the time, film star Mary Pickford. She was the model for Seignac’s Love’s Muse, and she owned at least one of his works, Happy Thoughts which decorated one of the rooms of Pickfair, her immense Beverly Hills estate. His original paintings still sell well at auction fetching somewhere in the fifty thousand to one hundred fifty thousand dollar range, depending on subject and size.
Like Happy Thoughts, Jeune femme denudée sur canape may have had the guiding hand of Bouguereau. Bouguereau treated his student like a son and this work, done around the year 1900, was when Seignac would have been spending time with his teacher. The face and hands of Jeune femme denudée sur canape have the fresh beauty of Bouguereau’s influence; the student probably worked to have each version of this painting retain as much of the genius of the teacher’s hand as possible.
Seignac painted prolifically, almost a thousand canvases of his works are in various collections around the world. His paintings of allegorical subjects such as Youth were popular with American buyers before World War I and into the 1920s. He executed a number of paintings very similar to Jeune femme denudée sur canape including Dreaming, L'Odalisque Aux Colombes and at least two versions of Indolence. In Dreaming the model holds a garland of roses, in one version of Indolence the lighting behind the settee is a bit darker, and in another, the same model has lighter-colored hair, and her drapery is pink rather the golden tones that surround the figure in Jeune femme. L'Odalisque Aux Colombes depicts the same model in the same pose but in a more classical setting. For Seignac to have painted the same model in the same setting, down to the same folds of drapery and coy expression—the porcelain beauty must have been popular and had a wide appeal.
Jeune femme denudée sur canape is alluring. The subject’s pose is a curving M shape, with the arch of her arm taking us up to her face, down along her torso, up along her thigh and back down to her toes. Her gaze is demure but direct. Her expression is soft, as is the focus on her face and hair, which almost disappears into the tapestry background. The dreamy expression and coiled but relaxed pose represent the artistic ideal at the time—grace and beauty come together. The relaxed nature and lack of Roman or Greek references in either landscape or title signify that this woman isn’t referring to myth, statue or dusty history subject, she is a real young woman, maybe a friend. The careful and exact line quality and modeling of her form create a calm example of eternal female beauty.
Although a faithful student of Bouguereau’s technique Jeune femme denudée sur canape color palette is characteristically Seignac’s: the porcelain skin tones and soft, clear colors are characteristic—especially the use of purple, also seen in Cupid Disarmed, Venus and Cupid and The Fragrant Iris.
The canvas of Jeune femme denudée sur canape is divided into a frame within a frame. The golden painted and paneled wall is covered by a tapestry—another of Seignac’s hallmarks—in front of the tapestry sits the settee, with the curving shape of the figure slightly breaking out of the edges of the straight lines of the settee. The tones of the background paneling and tapestry contrast with the brightness of the reclining figure’s smooth skin. Her right breast is highlighted, as is her thigh closest to us. The placement and high contrast of her breasts encourage the eye to linger; to direct the eye to her hand holding the mirror, or the delicate embroidery of her sheer wrap takes effort.
The lavender of the settee contrasts in hue to the gold and warm tones of the rest of the painting. This pale violet is a strong color contrast to the gold pillow and other warm, glowing hues in the painting. The figure reclines away from the viewer, but because of this contrast in tone and color, she does not recede. By making the figure the brightest element, a sense of space is created. The brightly lit area comes forward; the darker areas fall back: her face, then the tapestry, then the wall. The subject’s lovely hand, warmer and more vivid in color than the rest of her pale body extends almost off the sofa towards us. Also contributing to the sense of her having volume is the level of detail in the foreground, not only her right hand but also the embroidered beads on the drapery and her toes. These details provide foreground, against the middle ground of her body and the background of the tapestry. In this way, a sense Seignac creates a sense of space.
Seignac’s similar painting, Innocence provides an interesting comparison. The model and her pose are identical: the outstretched arm, the counterposed shoulders, and legs, the tipped head. The mirror has been replaced by a fan, the figure reclines against a cliffside, and two angels hover over the subject’s head. But the biggest difference is that in Innocence the figure is fully clothed. Somehow in seeing angels hover over her while fully clothed Bouguereau’s influences of theme and technique are more obviously observed.
The modeling in the figure in Jeune femme denudée sur canape is done as only a classically trained artist with many hours of studying the nude form can create. The figure herself is three dimensional, lights and darks, shadows and highlights tracing the contours of her body, a rounding in space, giving each part of her body volume. The details of the tapestry, the woodwork of both the paneling and the settee, and the carefully rendered fabric provide vivid contrast in texture, making the curving body of the figure even more flawlessly smooth by comparison.
The brushwork, in typical classical style, is invisible. We are alone with the subject, without the hand or the presence of the artist intruding. She is sculptural, carefully composed and timeless. She is living in a moment that lasts forever, and she shares this moment with the viewer.
Seignac exhibited his work in the Salon almost yearly, his work always sold well, both in London, Paris and in the U.S. He was a member and officer of the French Academy, appointed to the post Officer of Public Instruction of Art. Throughout Seignac's career, the influence of his classical training led him to promote an 'ideal' through an arrangement and use of classical and Renaissance models. We can see the influence of the Academy, and the teacher, in his clean execution, emphasis on the importance of line, and classical imagery. Seignac’s choice of limiting himself almost exclusively to the female form, usually with fashionable Mary Pickford-style curly hair, his skilled execution, and delicate color palette set him apart.
Charles Saunier wrote of Seignac’s art in the Salon of 1908: “Bouguereau is dead, long live Bouguereau! Or, rather, long live Monsieur Seignac! For in the works of the disciple live once more the subjects dear to the dead artist, with his mellowness and perfection of execution.”
With the recent resurgent appreciation of the academically trained painters, Seignac’s work is just as popular as when he was doing well enough to move to an upscale apartment in Montparnasse.
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