Eugène Leroy: Selected Works 1952–1968
November 3 – December 3, 2022
Eugène Leroy (1910–2000) is counted among the greatest French artists of the 20th century. The contribution of Leroy’s oeuvre is decisive because it bears witness to an incessantly reiterated combat of painting and image. Leroy was artistically isolated from the Parisian contemporary art scene of his time and disconnected from the mainstream art movements from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. He is respected for his absolute commitment to the art of painting at a time when the end of that medium had fallen out of favor.
Leroy is a singular artist who developed his own originality from his personal history and his artistic background related to the cultural and geographical context of northern France, where he lived and worked his entire life. His environment influenced his personality as an artist although he doesn’t like to be seen as a Northern painter.
Leroy remained largely unknown on the international art scene until the early 1980s when German Art dealer Michael Werner started to exhibit Leroy internationally, following the advice of the painter Georg Baselitz who discovered Leroy’s works while visiting Paris in the early 1960s and was left with a strong impression. Another connection with German Art is due to the common idea that Leroy’s painting has been stylistically classified under the movements of Expressionism and Neo-Expressionism and is mostly recognizable and distinctive because of his impressive use of thick paint. Sometimes working for years on several paintings, Leroy would cover the canvas with infinite layers of paint, which was typical of the last two decades of his career in the 1980s and the 1990s.
However, it is interesting to consider in a larger framework the evolution of Leroy’s style and to study his previous periods to understand the genesis of his work more fully. The first periods of Leroy — the 1950s and 1960s — were not highly esteemed because of the artist’s more traditional pictorial style where the figure is still clearly identified. In later years, Leroy moved toward abstraction where the subject is hard to perceive and the thickness of the paint creates an almost tri-dimensional aspect, close to sculpture.
Recently, several exhibitions and a major retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris (2022) as well as a very interesting show at the Musée Beaux Arts (MUba) in Tourcoing (2022) helped to rediscover Eugène Leroy from a different perspective than the one officially presented on his work in the late 1990s. Thanks to these exhibitions and recent scholarship, there has been a renewed understanding and appreciation for Leroy’s earlier works, which were previously less considered from a historical and artistic point of view, often written off as transitional and of little import. A reconsideration of the distinct qualities and style of each period within Leroy’s progression as an artist provides a broader point of view and helps establish that the importance of his work is not necessarily related to the thickness of paint, but that his practice and technique was constantly evolving.
Leroy’s art belongs to the tradition of painting and he was partial to the old masters he admired all his life, though he renewed and upset tradition with his own approach and his very personal vision, challenging the idea of modernity with a very intellectual and conceptual attitude. How to repeatedly paint the figure, the landscape, the self-portrait, and the nude while trying to create a new perception of these subjects is an essential question to Leroy’s achievement in painting as a way to create a new pictorial language.
Leroy was inspired by his immediate environment, his house, his garden from the windows of his workshop, the trees in the garden around his house, which are motifs that he painted throughout the various seasons of the year. His favorite model was his wife Valentine, whom he liked to paint in everyday situations.
This exhibition features a selection of more than 20 works representing the evolution of Leroy’s work since the beginning of the 1950s with the abstract painting L’étang (1952) to the late 1960s, including Untitled (1968), which belongs to the series Nude in a Landscape, a subject he often revisited throughout his career. Through its title, the exhibition is also a tribute to the city of Roubaix as an artistic center of the North of France between 1946 and 1975, where an entire new generation of local artists had been working and exhibiting together with the support of a motivated and passionate group of collectors who believed in their talents and helped them to express their art. Eugène Leroy was the elder of that group, a tutelary figure respected by the other artists, and he soon became emblematic of this “le groupe de Roubaix.”
Roubaix was an important place for Eugène Leroy. He studied there, taught there until 1963, shared a studio with the painter Arthur Van Hecke in the mid-1950s, and he exhibited several times in Roubaix. It was a suitable environment for him to entertain relations with other artists and collectors. Leroy was successful in the early stages of his career, and he was locally collected and exhibited. He had two important solo exhibitions at the MUba in Tourcoing in 1956 and 1957, both organized by a young curator, Jacques Bornibus, who was one of the first to believe in Leroy’s talent.
Three paintings from these historic exhibitions are on display here: L’Âtre (1954), Neiges (1956), and Portrait Rose/Bleu (1957). The paintings are exhibited thanks to private collections in Roubaix and Germany and are highly representative of Leroy’s style of that period.