Édouard Debat-Ponsan, born in Toulouse in France in 1847, was a multi-faceted artist of the Third Republic, known equally today for his Salon pictures as for his portraits and landscapes.
He began his studies as an artist in Toulouse at the age of fourteen. Six years later in 1866 he moved to Paris and entered the École des Beaux Arts, taking a place to study in the atelier of Alexandre Cabanel. He showed his first picture at the Salon in 1870. Failing to win the Prix de Rome, he was nevertheless granted a bursary by the state to go to Rome to finish his studies, which he did in 1877 and 1878. On returning to France, painting both in Paris and his native Toulouse, he produced academic pictures of a religious or mythological nature for the Salon, portraits of the successful middle-classes of that period and a number of pure landscapes and landscapes peopled with the working peasants of his day.
His biography thus shows him to have trodden a typical path for a Salon painter of his generation, but with the exception of a few outstanding artists in this genre – one thinks of Gérôme or Bouguereau – most of these painters’ names barely resonate with the public today. However, there are two paintings by Debat-Ponsan which have kept his name alive over the century since his death. The most infamous was his acutely political picture entitled La Vérité sortant du Puits. This picture, shown at the Salon of 1898, was an overt comment on the Dreyfus affair. In this notorious case which divided the French public in the 1890s, the French establishment had convicted the Jewish officer Dreyfus for the crime of passing important security documents to enemy factions – a charge of treason, but a charge of which he was completely innocent. Debat-Ponsan’s allegory, showing the naked figure of truth coming out of a dark well, holding up a mirror and avoiding the clutches of figures representing deceit and hypocrisy, effectively celebrates the complete exoneration of Dreyfus, whose campaign had been spearheaded by the strenuous efforts of a number of French intellectuals led by the famous novelist Emile Zola. The picture was bought two years later by public subscription and donated to Zola himself. However, this affair divided France and Debat-Ponsan’s partisanship not only lost him considerable business among the anti-Dreyfusards in Paris, but also caused a permanent rupture with his family. Feeling he had to break all ties with his family, he left his native Toulouse for ever, moving to the Touraine where he would live until his death in 1913.
His other well-known picture, genuinely famous now rather than infamous, is Le Massage, Scene de Hamman (The Massage – Scene in a Turkish Bath), which is now in the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse. In 1882-1883 Debat-Ponsan had travelled to Istanbul. He was primarily there to make sketches for a vast panorama of the Bosphorus, commissioned by some Dutch entrepreneurs, who planned to install it in a purpose-built building in Copenhagen. However, while in Istanbul he was also inspired to paint a number of orientalist-type pictures and Le Massage, probably sketched there but finished in his studio in Paris, remains to this day one of the best known of all French orientalist works. The finished work in Toulouse shows a white girl, laid face-down on a marble slab, having her raised left arm massaged by a black woman. The work even now has a definite erotic charge. But while the scene is clearly an imaginary one and may perhaps today be accused of a certain colonial voyeurism in some quarters, the skill of the execution is outstanding and raises the picture to the status of masterpiece. The juxtaposition of the black and white skins, the superb rendering of the marble and the painstaking detail of the blue tiles in the background ensure that the picture transcends such superficial criticism. The picture was shown at the Salon of 1883 and was finally acquired by the city of Toulouse in 1885. Constantly in demand for loans to exhibitions both in France and overseas, it has slowly become an icon – not only an icon for Debat-Ponsan’s art, but also an icon for orientalism and even an icon for French 19th century Salon painting in general.
This present sketch, worked in oil on a small panel and only recently discovered, is clearly an experimental compositional sketch for the big Toulouse painting. Here the artist is beginning to work out the final positioning of his figures. In our panel, unlike the finished work, the white girl’s body is turned towards the viewer and her face turned upwards. The black masseuse, apart from a different position for her right arm, is already in a near-identical pose to that which she assumes in the large work. The background is as yet unresolved though. The blue and white iznik tiles have not yet made their appearance, and interestingly, in the space which will eventually be filled by a wall-mounted marble fountain, there is the suggestion of what looks like a doorway with a traditional Moorish arch. The heads of the figures have been painted without features at this stage, but their positioning could possibly be read as looking up towards the doorway. This sketch is at an early stage of Debat-Ponsan’s ideas for the picture and the artist’s intentions are still slightly ambiguous. But it would seem that he was either thinking of having a view through a doorway behind - or maybe even a scene in which the massage is interrupted by some noise or person through that doorway?
However we view the artist’s intentions, this little panel must fascinate the public who know the finished work. Here, worked out on a small - almost rough – piece of wood are the first thoughts the artist had for this picture, which was at that stage only an idea. If the large work can still mesmerize the viewer with its meticulous touches of skin and marble, this small sketch can also intrigue us with the feeling that we are looking at the very genesis of Le Massage. We have here the first expressions in paint of Debat-Ponsan’s idea – an idea which would eventually grow into a picture now recognized as a great work of art.