The works of 19th-century French artist Léon Adolphe Belly thrum with life. His clever compositions and effusive palettes offered his contemporary audiences honest looks at life in the Middle East. As a result, he became celebrated in his time and cemented a reputation as one of the most renowned ‘orientalist’ artists.
Belly was the son of a military commander who died when he was a young boy, leaving him to be raised by his mother. It seems that artistic ability ran in Belly’s blood, for his mother was a miniature painter. Belly’s 19th-century biographer thinks it likely the mother would have encouraged Belly’s artistic predilections.
Whatever the case, it does seem that his artistic curiosity was too good to resist. Despite being accepted into the École Polytechnique, with its focus on the sciences and engineering, it was his time as a student at the studios of painters Constant Troyon (1810-1865) and François-Édouard Picot (1786-1868) that proved most influential.
It was possibly Troyon who introduced Belly to Théodore Rousseau (1812-1867). Both artists were part of the Barbizon School, a collective of artists based near the Forest of Fontainebleau. Naturalism was the key tenet of this group, and their surroundings became their first and foremost guide as they pioneered a move towards realistic and evocative depictions of nature.
Belly was undoubtedly influenced by this group, and by Troyon and Rousseau in particular, for as a young artist, he exhibited a number of these naturalistic, Barbizon works at the prestigious Paris Salon.
Lustrous greens swamp his canvases in confident brushstrokes, summoning up bushels of branches and unfolding leaves.
The Forest of Fontainebleau and other scenes of the French countryside, such as Normandy, are celebrated in a glorious naturalist fashion by Belly.
Indeed, throughout his life, Belly would often make trips around the French countryside to continue to capture these views.
However, amongst the dense offerings of the forests of France, there was another calling Belly could not ignore. In 1850, the young artist accompanied Louis Félicien de Saulcy (1807-1880) to the Middle East, travelling to Lebanon, Palestine, and the Dead Sea. Here, he would become enraptured by the scenes of nature and of everyday life set before him. Belly was resolved to pursue such subjects in his art.
Such an interest was part of a growing trend in ‘orientalist’ art. Since the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798, a Western presence had slowly seeped further into the East and cultivated a curiosity with different cultural and religious practices among the public. Such an influence seeped into art, which then became a key tool for communicating to people back home the differences between their lands.
It would be remiss not to mention that some depictions, particularly earlier works, were shaped by imperialism and prejudices. As the 19th century progressed, some works became depictions of fantasy more than of reality, perpetuating myths of life in the Middle East, some of which had negative connotations.
Whilst undoubtedly influenced by western ideas and conceptions, Belly’s works resonate with a strong realism and faithfulness to his subjects derived from his travels and experiences.
The naturalism taught by the Barbizon school is translated onto Middle Eastern landscapes.
Belly was praised for lending to his works a ‘luminously grey tonality,’ rather than an ‘ethnographic picturesqueness.’ Sand is dusty and dulled by the wan sunlight in a way that conjures up a sense of heat and haziness in the viewer. It is a much more effective and naturalist approach than a luminosity of colour leaning towards hyper-reality.
His attention to detail in the execution of his human figures was also noted as something ‘superb,’ done with a resounding realism. His most famous work, ‘The Engraved Dahabieh’ (1877) depicts a group of men furiously pushing a boat into the water, sail suspended as a ballooned mass of fabric above their heads as they work in the wash to set sail. The shading of their muscles under the burgeoning sun is slick, their concentrated expressions determined. The combination of fine composition, striking naturalism in the surroundings, and uncanny realism in the subjects, skyrocketed Belly’s renown in his homeland.
Belly was beginning to establish for himself a reputation as one of the great ‘orientalist’ painters. He travelled often to the Middle East over a period of seven years, taking away new inspiration with each trip. The works produced were frequently exhibited at the Paris Salon, bringing him renown. Indeed, in 1862 he would receive the highest merit in France, the Legion of Honour.
It is worth mentioning that Belly was also a skilled portrait painter. This seems unsurprising considering the agency and energy he gives to the subjects of his other works. Whilst this was not a subject he undertook regularly, his critics and peers were still quick to praise his works as doing ‘honour to a professional portrait painter.’
A brief sojourn, too, was made into the more classical works of mythological subjects. ‘Ulysses and the Sirens’ (1867) was, according to his biographer, a love letter to the great Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Belly had a ‘practical admiration for Rubens.’ His dramatic scene of the sirens surging upon the tide to entice Ulysses’ ship was a ‘tribute’ to the great master. The bountiful, beauteous bodies of the sirens certainly have a Rubenesque quality. However, Belly’s audience were a little perplexed by this change of subject and style, and it was not something he repeated.
What this does reveal is an artist curious to experiment and expand his horizons, as he had done so all those years ago, setting off for the Middle East. Indeed, it was not only the naturalism that Belly applied to his art, but his own natural instincts as an artist which made his works so popular.
‘In whatever genre he has tried his talent, and these genres are very varied, he has always been equal to himself, because he has always been sincere,’ a critic would praise.
This sincerity afforded Belly variability as an artist, and also fuelled his pièce de résistance ‘orientalist works,’ with their resounding naturalism.
Unfortunately, Belly suffered a stroke in 1872 from which he never fully recovered, passing away five years later. His contemporaries mourned his loss and organised a retrospective exhibition of his work at the École des Beaux-Arts. They hoped that even after the artist’s death, his reputation was ‘destined to grow still further.’ There is a certainty in affirming their predictions. Belly’s legacy in the art world is considerable, and today a number of his works are held in museums across Europe.
Born in Saint-Omer, France.
Travelled frequently to Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, and the Dead Sea.
First exhibited with the Paris Salon.
Exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle.
Exhibited at the London Exposition Universelle.
Awarded the Order of the Legion of Honour.
Died in Paris, France.
Retrospective exhibition of work held at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris.