Adolphe Alexandre Lesrel was twenty-two when he began his studies with the academic painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). Like many aspiring painters, he hoped to follow in Gérôme’s footsteps as a history painter of scenes from ancient Greece and Rome. By 1861, however, Gérôme had already begun to expand his repertoire to include exotic scenes from Egypt and North Africa as well as genre scenes based on French historical eras.
Lesrel was fascinated with the work of an-Louis Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891), whose meticulous, detailed historical subjects were beginning to redefine history painting as a form of documentary art. At the Exposition Universelle in 1867, Meissonier exhibited no less than fourteen paintings, an extremely successful venture and one that must have impressed Lesrel deeply.
Lesrel made his Salon debut in 1865, launching a career that would bring him recognition and economic security for many years. In the late 1860s and 1870s, his painting was largely based on a romanticized vision of the Middle Ages, perhaps inspired by the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in England, or even the Nazarene painters; both groups emerged on the European artistic stage in the 1840s and 1850s and would likely have been known to the arts community in Paris. Lesrel’s 1873 painting, Flirtation in the Town Square, clearly suggests the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in its use of a medieval architectural setting, detailed and richly textured costumes and the subject of a romantic encounter between a red-haired young woman and a dashing young troubadour. In terms of technique, the careful attention to detail also demonstrates the importance of Meissonier’s influence.
At some point in the 1880s, Lesrel began to focus his attention more specifically on historic genre paintings dealing primarily with scenes from the time of King Louis XIII (1601-1643). Unlike his earlier medievalizing canvases, Lesrel was now showcasing scenes of sophisticated gentlemen engaged in activities related to intellectual pursuits such as art collecting, architectural design, chess games, musical parties and the consumption of fine wines. There are very few women in these paintings, and the setting is almost always a domestic interior of some sort. Although these paintings might trace their lineage back to the troubadour paintings of the first half of the nineteenth century, they are less about romanticizing the gothic and renaissance past, and more about evoking the 17th century when France was emerging as an important European power.
The reign of Louis XIII was characterized by a transition from the chaotic period during his mother’s seven-year regency after the assassination of her husband, Henri IV, to a more sophisticated and stable era when the king himself was in charge. He was a successful political leader who contained the Hapsburg empire during the Thirty Years War and quelled a rebellion by the French nobility. By the mid-nineteenth century, Louis XIII’s reputation as a warrior, diplomat and ruler had transformed him into the fictional sovereign described by Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers. (Which was originally published as a serialized novel in Le Siècle, March-July 1844.) By the 1880s, Louis XIII had become a figure of irreverent humor at the Montmartre cabaret, Le Chat Noir, where supposedly “Louis XIII” furniture became part of satirical commentary. In short, by the time that Lesrel began painting his scenes of courtly gentlemen, the evocation of the age of Louis XIII was a familiar feature of popular culture.
Lesrel’s paintings suggest not the “musketeer” image so much as that of dashing, urbane men who are well educated, culturally sophisticated and impeccably dressed. Although there is often an understated humor in these canvases, they seem to have appealed to art collectors who saw themselves as the contemporary equivalent of the seventeenth century figures in the paintings.