A May Service for Young Women
- Place of origin:
London, England (painted)
Legros, born 1837 - died 1911 (artist)
- Materials and Techniques:
oil on canvas
- Credit Line:
Bequeathed by Constantine Alexander Ionides
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Alphonse Legros (1837-1911) was born in Dijon where he entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts before attending the 'Petite Ecole' of Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran (1802-1897) in Paris and then Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He started exhibited at the Salon in 1857. In 1863, Legros visited London where he found admirers and patrons, notably the Ionides family, and was ardently promoted by the brothers Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Michael Rossetti. An etcher, a painter and a sculptor, he succeeded Edward John Poynter (1836-1919) at the Slade School in 1876 and was naturalized as a British citizen in 1880.
This work is a fine example of Legros' genre paintings. It shows some women gathered in a church interior attending a May service dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The subdued palette and earthen tones as well as the subject matter are indebted to the French Realist movement and in particular the art of Gustave Courbet while the design reached a very high degree of refinement. This painting is considered as one of the finest compositions Legros produced in the 1860s.
Interior of a chapel in a church built of grey stone; on the right are seated 9 girls, facing towards the left; on the left is seated a grey-bearded priest holding an open book and chanting, and on the left is a clean shaven man playing an organ; on the floor is a green carpet; in the background are a pulpit, and an archway leading to another part of the church.
Place of Origin
London, England (painted)
Legros, born 1837 - died 1911 (artist)
Materials and Techniques
oil on canvas
Marks and inscriptions
A. Legros. 1868.
Height: 107.3 cm, Width: 146.7 cm
Object history note
M. Miéville, 1875; purchased by Constantine Alexander Ionides, 17 June 1882, for £130, perhaps from someone named 'Le Roux' (inventory of the Ionides collection); bequeathed by Constantine Alexander Ionides, 1900.
Ref: Basil S. Long, Catalogue of the Constantine Alexander Ionides collection.Vol. 1, Paintings in oil, tempera and water-colour, together with certain of the drawings, London : Printed under the authority of the Board of Education, 1925.
C. Monkhouse, ‘The Constantine Ionides Collection’ in Magazine of Art, vii, 1884, pp. 36-44, 208-214.
The collection formed by Constantine Ionides includes works of a wide variety of schools, periods and artists. His collection includes Old Masters, 17th century works, contemporary British works and French 19th century works. Constantine formed friendships with artists of the day, especially Legros, who, having spent 17 years in Britain, became a naturalise British citizen. Constantine proved a stable and generous buyer of Legros work, while Legros, in turn, became an advisor in the matters of art to the attentive Constantine. Under the influence of Legros Constantine developed a keen interest in French 19th century paintings purchasing works by Delacroix, Degas, Millet and Rousseau.
Constantine’s plans concerning his collection conformed to a more ‘public-welfare’ vein of thought than his father or brother. He decided to donate his collection to the Victoria & Albert Museum, instead of privately distributing it or disposing of it in a Sales room.
His will states:
'All my pictures both in oil and water colors and crayon or colored chalks (but subject as to my family portraits to the interest herein before given to my said Wife) and all my etchings drawings and engravings to the South Kensington Museum for the benefit of the nation to be kept there as one separate collection to be called "The Constantine Alexander Ionides Collection" and not distributed over the Museum or lent for exhibition. And I desire that the said Etchings Drawings and Engravings shall be framed and glazed by and at the expense of the authorities of the Museum so that Students there can easily see them.'
The collection bequeathed to the museum in 1901 comprises 1138 pictures, drawing and prints, to which a further 20 items were added on the death of his widow in 1920. The works are listed in the V&A catalogue of the Constantine Alexander Ionides collection.
Historical significance: This painting is a fine example of Legros' genre scene. It was originally entitled Demoiselles du mois de Marie alluding to the dedication of young (unmarried) women to the Virgin Mary during May. The composition results from an interesting combination of influences. Although the painting was executed in London, it appears still indebted to Courbet and Realist art while at the same time, the subject matter and the cold architecture of the church interior is somewhat reminiscent of the art of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Legros painted several church interiors with priest and worshippers. There is a similar composition, Interior of a Church with Kneeling Figures, 1865, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Inv. WA1953.67) while another earlier work, Ex-Voto, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon anticipates the thematic of a gathering of praying women, that time however in an open-air landscape.
Although T. Wilcox praised this painting as one of the most beautiful compositions of the 1860s, at the time Whistler was giving a very negative account qualifying the picture as the product of an old man and his art hopeless (Wilcox, 1987).
However the figure of the monk was etched by the artist himself and published twice: once by M. Holloway, in a collection of ten etchings by Legros and again (the head only) in the Portfolio in 1870 (Monkhouse, 1884).
Historical context note
'Genre painting' describes scenes of everyday life set in domestic interiors or in the countryside, especially those produced by 17th-century Dutch painters such as Gerard ter Borch, Jan Steen, and Pieter de Hooch. These subjects were not particularly popular with Italian and French artists before the 18th century. Even then, Italian genre painting is mainly restricted to works produced by Northern artists active in Bologna and the Veneto such as Giuseppe Maria Crespi (1665-1747), Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (1682-1754), Pietro Longhi (ca. 1701-1785) and Giacomo Ceruti (1698-1767). In this pre-Enlightment society, issues of social class, the legitimacy of power and the needs of common people were beginning to be discussed in Holland, England and France and the debates were slowly filtering down to Italy. Bolognese intellectual life was particularly active and Crespi, who was corresponding one of the most notable academics, Antonio Muratori (1672-1750), appears to have created a visual response to these debates. The works of the Bamboccianti, mostly Netherlandish painters specialising in low-life paintings, painted in Rome in the mid 17th century, may also have provided a source for Italian genre painters while the commedia dell’arte profoundly inspired Crespi and the development of this new Italian version of genre painting. From Bologna the genre spread to Venice thanks to Venetians artists such as Piazzetta and Longhi. They drew the attention of foreign collectors, most notably Joseph Smith the British Consul in Venice, who amassed an impressive collection of such artworks and of Venetian art in general and contributed to the growing taste for these in England. In France, the genre was mainly introduced in the second quarter of the 17th century by the Le Nain brothers, especially Antoine and Louis, whose works still pose problems of individual identification. Genre paintings would be reactivated during the 19th century when artists such as Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) whose art was based on the impartial observation of contemporary life.
Oil painting, 'A May Service for Young Women', Alphonse Legros, 1868
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
C. Monkhouse in The Magazine of Art, vol. 7, 1884, p. 123.
Summary Catalogue of British Paintings, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1973, p. 80-81.
T. Wilcox ed., Alphonse Legros 1837-1911, Paris, 1988, p. 74.
B.S. Long, Catalogue of the Constantine Alexander Ionides collection. Vol. 1, Paintings in oil, tempera and water-colour, together with certain of the drawings, London, 1925, p. 32.
Autumn Exhibition (Liverpool, Autumn Exhibition 01/01/1877-31/12/1877)
Oil paint; Canvas
Women; Church; Worship; Priest; Mass