Although well represented in museum collections in America and in Europe, the name Albert Belleroche is unfamiliar to all but a few connoisseurs. This was Belleroche’s own doing, as he was highly regarded by the leading critics and artists of his time. A modest man of independent means, Belleroche did not create with commercial intent, and disliked involvement in the promotion and sale of his own work. Thus, with the passage of time, particularly fine examples of the work of this artist, who valued privacy to the point of being unapproachable, have become difficult to find.
Albert Belleroche was born in 1864, the son of Edward Charles, the Marquis de Belleroche, whose family, one of the oldest Houses of Europe, was connected to the Royal Family of France. His Huguenot forebears left France and emigrated to Britain after the Revocation des Edits de Nantes in 1685. Thus, Count Albert de Belleroche was born a British subject in Swansea, Wales. Although he preferred to be known simple as “Belleroche”, thereby declining the use of his ancient French title, he was to develop an essentially French outlook and sensibility as an artist.
His father died in Albert’s infancy and he was brought up in Paris by his mother and his stepfather, Harry Vane Milbank. His mother Alice, originally from Brussels, was a noted social beauty who entertained lavishly at their home in the Avenue Montaigne. However the young Belleroche was not greatly interested in the social whirl, but devoted his time to sketching.
In 1882, Milbank commissioned Carolus Duran, the noted portrait painter, to paint his wife. While the work was in progress, Mrs. Milbank gave a dinner party for Edward VII, then the Prince of Wales. During that evening Duran saw sketches by the young Belleroche and suggested that he come to study at his studio. However, Belleroche’s independent nature resisted the formal structure at Duran’s studio, and he stayed there only a short time. He believed that art was not learned in schools but rather in museums among the masters. Botticelli, Vermeer, Fragonard, Frans Hal and Chardin were his favorite painters.
During that year, Belleroche attended a banquet given in honor of Duran by his students. It was here that he first met John Singer Sargent, the former student of Duran whose early successes at the Salons were the talk of the haute monde. Belleroche and Sargent were to become life-long friends, and were to share various studios in Paris and London. Their affiliation was one of mutual admiration, sympathy of taste and artistic direction. They were confreres. What Sargent was able to do drawing freely and spontaneously with charcoal on paper, Belleroche would go on to do with lithographic crayon on stone. It was Belleroche who encouraged and instructed Sargent in his rare experiments in lithography. Two of Sargent’s seven known lithographs are portraits of Belleroche, both done in 1905, twenty-three years after they met.
The Café de la Rochefoucauld and the Restaurant l’Avenue were favorite haunts of Belleroche and Sargent until Sargent’s permanent move to London in 1886. Among their many friends who used to gather there were Émile Zola, Oscar Wilde, George Moore, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. In 1882, Belleroche painted Lautrec’s portrait as a souvenir of their friendship. Lautrec was then a student at Fernand Cormon’s studio. They were both eighteen years old.
Belleroche soon recognized the potentially strong influence of Sargent, whose fame was already beginning to surpass that of Duran. Out of camaraderie Belleroche agreed to Sargent’s suggestion him and their artist friend Paul Helleu to Haarlem for a weekend to view paintings by Frans Hals. However, he was to decline an invitation from Sargent to join him on a painting expedition in the Holy Land, later writing “I realized that a journey like this with Sargent might influence me in my art and affect my individual expression.” Years later, in the 1930’s, one of the more famous members of the Royal Academy confided to the writer Julian Millest that “it is much more likely that Belleroche influenced Sargent.”
Albert Belleroche fit many romantic conceptions of an artist in Paris in the 1890’s. He maintained a studio opposite the Moulin Rouge, and like Lautrec, who also bore the name of a noble family; he enjoyed the freedom and life of Montmartre. Here he met Lili Grenier, the model made famous by Lautrec, but soon to pose almost exclusively for Belleroche. He painted such personalities of the quartier as Cha-U-Kao, Mata Hari, Olympia (the model immortalized by Degas), and the famous Japanese wrestler, Taro Myaki. Like Degas, he came from a wealthy family; he was reserved, even critical of his own work; he discouraged visitors to his studio; and he painted out of passion, not for financial reward.
Stylistically, Belleroche’s paintings belong to the circle in which he moved. The following context is given by Arthur M. Hind, the renowned art historian and the Keeper of Prints and Drawings at The British Museum from 1933 to 1945:
In his painting he belongs in spirit (as also in association) to the French Impressionists: not in the narrower technical meaning attached to the spectral analysis of Monet, Pissarro, or their kind, but in the sense that sergeant described himself as such in the eighties of the last century. Manet (in his later development), Degas, Renoir, Carrière and Helleu, are perhaps his nearest kin among French painters.
Commissioned portraits never appealed to Belleroche. Given his social position and his special talent in portraiture, he undoubtedly could have enjoyed the fame of Helleu and Sargent, whose commissions were then growing in demand. However, Belleroche believed that when an artist accepted a portrait on commission he risked becoming a slave to the sitter. And it must be remembered that Belleroche did not need to paint to earn his living. Therefore he could freely choose his subjects, selecting only personalities who appealed to him, sometimes notable, sometimes not. Then, with a single-minded devotion to the personal expression of his vision, he could create without compromise.
The turning point in Belleroche’s career came in 1900. The moment that he began to make lithographs, he realized that he had discovered his true medium, one well suited to his temperament, From the beginning, Belleroche showed an intuitive and innovative understanding of the possibilities of lithography. As he learned the intrinsic qualities of the medium, the greasy wax crayon became a “potent force” in his hand.
In lithography, Belleroche would perfect his drawing and produce his most creative work. His hand was so sure that he did not need to work from preparatory sketches, but could draw directly on the stone. He achieved his characteristic vibrant atmosphere of light and movement through a freely drawn and scraped line which made use of the textured grain of the stone to produce the fullest range of tone from light to dark which the stone is capable of yielding. One can sense the immediacy, the verve of his hand moving across the stone, as well as the energy of his original conception. Bold, rigorous draftsmanship alternates with the most delicate passages to heighten the artist’s sensitive portrayal of emotion. These drawings on stone have the appearance of being literally drawings on paper.
Belleroche did not sacrifice his paintings for lithography, but often treated the two together. He said that he saw as much “color” in his lithography as he did in his oils, and that lithography is essentially a painter’s medium. His artist friend Frank Brangwyn wrote:
As a lithographic artist he stands alone. No modern can touch him either in his knowledge or in the quality to be gotten out of the stone. No one else has succeeded in making lithography the rival of painting. His prints are full of color and animation and subtle delicacy.
In 1903, Belleroche became the only British Membre-Fondateur of the Salon d’Automne. By 1904, his work was receiving critical acclaim as well as the respect and admiration of his peers. Renoir called him “le peintre des femmes décoiffées.” AT the 1904 Salon d’Automne an entire room was devoted to his work. At that exhibition, a lithograph was purchased by Degas and a painting was acquired by the Musée du Luxenbourg.
Claude Roger-Marx, doyen critic of the Impressionists and “discoverer” of Renoir was also one of the first to champion the painter-lithographers of the turn-of-the-century. In 1908, he wrote a long illustrated article on Belleroche for the Gazette des Beaux Arts. Alluding to the artist’s successes at the recent Paris Salons, he stated:
Belleroche holds a premier position in the current renaissance of lithography. No one since Eugène Carrière…has equaled Belleroche’s technique or his understanding of lithography. He is a master. …Indeed he is a painter-lithographer: he brings his subjects to life in moving light and shadows. His ink creates tones which reach the limits of the joyous and profound. …His art, born in a daylight which is its own justification, is created from love.
These are perhaps heady words written in the elevated style of art criticism of the time. Yet over thirty years later, A.M. Hind would write this equally enthusiastic praise of Belleroche’s lithographs:
In sensitive draughtsmanship, in variety of handling and in understanding of the possibilities of the medium, his work in lithography is among the greatest achievements [of the medium] since its discovery.
Regarding subject matter, the majority of the lithographs are studies of portrait and figure. However, there are also some very fine landscapes, interiors, and imaginative still lifes. Roger-Marx gives this description of the portraits as well as other subjects:
[While his] works are diverse…they celebrate foremost the womanhood of our time. …These are thoroughly modern works which capture brief, reverent moments of joy, tenderness and wonder, much like the works of Sargent, Helleu, or Besnard. Belleroche’s portraits of women are iconographic: they may be benevolent, dignified, gentle, gracious, and even humorous or portly. But always they are full of charm and contrast. Upon his stone, he puts the allure of a short-lived moment, some feeling of joy or hope he sees in a fleeting smile or a far away look which might suggest a daydream or divine puzzle. His women possess an inner sovereignty. He captures this in the pale whiteness of their faces, the striking evocative gaze of their eyes, and the astonishing naturalness of their hair. Besides his portraits of women, his works include wonderful remembrances or keepsakes of the countryside, as well as interiors, and still-lifes – precious, jewel-like studies which are…full of shimmering reflections or faintly glimmering shadows. And lastly are his voluptuous nudes which remind us of Degas and Rodin.
In 1910, at the age of forty-five, Belleroche married the beautiful Julie Emilie Visseaux, who was twenty-eight years of age and the daughter of his friend, the sculptor Jules Edouard Visseaux. Perhaps at this point in his life he sought a more stable relationship than he had yet found. The model Lili, having been Belleroche’s mistress for almost ten years, was deeply disturbed by the marriage and tried to break up the couple. She was evidently a factor in Belleroche’s decision to leave Paris with his bride. Perhaps too, he sensed the impending war which would soon sweep away forever the friendships and scenes of his carefree days in Paris. He returned to England to live, as his mother had done several years earlier following the death of Mr. Milbank. The couple lived quietly, first in Hampstead, and then in the countryside in a 13th century house at Rustington in Sussex where they raised their three children. The artist continued to make lithographs, although after World War I he worked only intermittently and in seclusion.
In the 1930’s, Belleroche presented large collections of his lithographs to the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; the Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels; and the British Museum in London. A smaller collection was given to the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. In 1933, the Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels held a major retrospective exhibition of 291 lithographs and published an extensive catalogue of the exhibition. In conjunction with this honor, King Albert of Belgium bestowed on Belleroche the order of Chevalier de l’Ordre de Leopold.
At about this time, Belleroche’s son William (1913-1969) became active in the art world as a painter and a writer. Among his projects, he wrote a biography of his father’s friend, the artist Frank Brangwyn. In 1939 William persuaded his father and Brangwyn to donate a large number of paintings to France as a Franco-British tribute, leading to the foundation of the Brangwyn-Belleroche Museum in Orange. In March 1942, the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, mounted a retrospective exhibition of about 100 works, including paintings, drawings, and lithographs. A. M. Hind was on the point of hanging an exhibition of the lithographs in the British Museum in May 1942 when damage from wartime bombings necessitated closing the building.
At the outbreak of World War II and the bombing of the coast, Belleroche moved his family north to Southwell in Nottingham where he lived a simpler life in retirement. Ina small rented room over an electrician’s shop, he kept a makeshift studio where he stored the work of his Montmartre days. Not even his family was permitted inside this place, which became for him a retreat, full of memories of his life in Paris. Belleroche died in 1944 at the age of eighty in Southwell, after a long illness.
(Swansea, Ocotber 22nd 1864 – Southwell, July 14th 1944)
A.k.a. Albert Gustavus de Belleroche / Albert de Belleroche