Portrait of a Little-Known Artist: Alexandre Antoine Girardot
Virtually unknown but highly-talented, first generation French Orientalist painter Alexandre Antoine Girardot (1815–c.1877) has left but few traces of what must have been an unusual and adventurous life. Born in Paris in February 1815, he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts on 6 October 1836. A student of Blondel, he exhibited regularly at the Salon between 1841 and 1848, submitting views of Algeria and other “oriental” subjects.
This exceptional visual document comprises two albums painstakingly and thoughtfully assembled from Girardot’s observational sketch-books. It is very possible that Girardot may have made his initial trip to Algeria at the time of the French invasion in 1830; the first album opens with a group of panoramic views of Algiers, including one “as it appeared in 1831”. Girardot would have been just 16 years old at the time, so it is unlikely that he retained any youthful sketches, but here he confidently reconstructs an early vision of the city to offer in contrast to its appearance in 1842, when the sketches were made.
The inclusion of a rare portrait of Abdelkader, leader of the Algerian resistance, taken in 1852, and of Léon Roche, son of the mayor of Oran, interpreter to General Bugeaud, and “renegade” confidante to the emir, perhaps suggests a military or diplomatic context for Girardot’s presence in Algeria, a suggestion that is reinforced by his interior views of the English and Spanish consulates. It is a possibility that he originally travelled out à la suite of either his father or another patron. He certainly was to spend a large part of the next three decades travelling the country, accumulating this remarkable visual record.
His death is a mystery, the putative date inferred from the last recorded work by his hand. The albums are accompanied by a photographic portrait of the artist, depicting a well-dressed, solidly-built bourgeois gentleman with a beard, who addresses the camera with an open, frank and perhaps slightly amused expression. He is apparently missing his right arm.
Examples of his oils are held in the collections of the Musée de l’Armée in Paris and the Musée Marey et des Beaux-Arts in Beaune. Largely comprised of highly-finished pencil drawings – some with expressive dashes of body-colour, and a good number completed in watercolour – these two albums, which remained in the painter’s personal collection, clearly represent the result of authorial selection and organisation. Retrospectively, Girardot gathered together the most accomplished of his sketch-work and arranged it by theme and by region, sometimes combining on the same page drawings produced decades apart.
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