Jules Cavaillès, Le Peintre du Bonheur
Jules Cavaillès was a painter whose art expressed the ‘joy of living’. He adored cheerful images which conjured up the pleasures of life: sunny harbour scenes viewed through open windows, the lush countryside, naked women, colourful flowers in decorative interiors, and even lobsters.
He composed and recomposed this selected reality at leisure, presenting it through objects gleaned like repositories of memories, and he infused his art with life thanks to pure colours stroked by a soft light. The decorations of his interiors are a reflection of childhood memories, imbued with a distinctive provincial Napoleon 111 character. These interiors are still marked by a kind of maternal warmth, an invitation to adopt an unhurried approach. His paintings of open windows are like a breath of fresh air; they are an open stage, reflecting a leisurely way of life, and create a mood of contemplation. Despite his delicate and lyrical touch, Jules Cavaillès manages to convey his tremendous lust for life in his paintings.
Poetic dimension of the object
Cavaillès always retained his independent stance, his enthusiastic take on life and his sensitive attitude. He would devise innovative colour harmonies and develop unusual tonal relationships to demonstrate th at in spite of all the technical constraints, his paintings revealed the vitality of his vision, reaching out to the poetic dimension of the object. He liked to talk about his eagerness to see his paintings sing: Nothing should be ‘inhabited’ in a painting, no space should remain lifeless. Everything should conspire to enhance a painting’s harmonious balance. This is what invests a painting with its vibrancy. Jules Cavaillès was born on 20 june 1901, in Carmeaux, a little town in the south-west of France where he spent an unruffled childhood. His academic record was poor during his time at school in Albi, but he continued his studies in Castres. He was 13 years old at the outbreak of war in 1914. He became acquainted with some convalescent soldiers, who took great delight in offering him drawing classes, while extolling the virtues of the capital: Paris, the only city in the world where the idea of becoming a painter could be seriously contemplated. Enthusiastic and consumed with a passion for this fascinating new subject that never failed to enthral him, he sought to persuade his parents to allow him to head for the dream city where he wanted to “make his way in life”. They were adamant he should not go, so jules returned to school. He prepared for the Crafts and SME drawing competition but failed the oral examination. Hence he started work in 1919 as a draughtsman with the Carmaux Mining Company.
Cavaillès got to know ‘père Artigue’ a student of Paul Laurens and a friend of the Post-Impressionist painter, Henri Martin. He convinced the young man to come and study in Paris and persuaded his parents he should be allowed to leave. This he did in 1922. Jules was accompanied by Rose, his wife, who turned out to be a tower of strength and the guardian angel in his life. This penniless couple headed for the bright lights and started their Parisian adventure. Determined to take up the career of a painter, he studied with Pierre and Paul Albert Laurens at the AcadÈmie Julian. He lived with his wife at ‘La Ruche‘ (literally the beehive), the artist’s residence in the passage Dantzig, which had offered shelter to major artists such as Soutine, Modigliani, Chagall and Zadkine just two years before. It was during this time that Cavaillès struck up a friendship with the young painter Roger Limouse. The pair shared the same studio for several years and would sally forth together to visit the Louvre to marvel at and study the paintings that were still in sketch form. He confessed later on: It gave me a lot more pleasure to study the sketch of the ‘Descent from the cross’ than to study Rubens’ definitive work, as the ardour is dampened by science and pushed to extremes. What I find touching about the work is how it expresses a real spontaneous feeling.
Cavaillès exhibited and sold his work for the first time in 1923. By 1925 he was starting to move away from academic traditions of painting to reach out to contemporary art forms. He soon became overwhelmed by material considerations, however: the paints and canvases were too expensive so Jules and Rose decided to open a grocer’s shop, first in Choisy-le-Roi then in rue L’Abbè-Groult. He would set off every morning for Les Halles market district to seek fresh supplies for the shop, then head off to the Acadèmie Julian, before returning to his shop in the afternoon. In 1934 Cavaillès decided to take part in the competition organised by the Blumenthal Foundation for French Art & Thought. He was selected along with various other artists but was then dropped because as a shopkeeper he was thought to be too well-off to take part. He subsequently sold his ‘Flotte des Indes’, as he called it and carried off the prize two years later. This triumph helped to make his paintings known to a broader public. As a result of the support of Auguste Perret and Antoine Bourdelle he was asked to exhibit at the Salon des Tuileries, where work by Friesz, Gromaire, Segonzac, Vlaminck and his friends had already appeared. In 1936 Raymond Escholier approached him to form the 14th group of ‘Contemporary Artists’ to exhibit in the Petit Palais. In the following year he was commissioned to decorate the Languedoc Pavilion during the International Exhibition, and in the wake of this success he ended up being appointed to teach at the Paris National Academy of the Decorative Arts, from 1938 onwards. When war broke out, Cavaillès was assigned to the 7th Corps of Engineers based in Avignon, then deployed to an arms factory in Laudun, with his friend Arbus.
He nonetheless continued to take part in art exhibitions in various capitals, such as Helsinki and Budapest. Instead of returning to teach in Paris, in 1944 he joined the resistance in the Languedoc region with Jean Cassou. On liberation he was appointed curator of the Toulouse Museum, until he returned to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, for which he built up a substantial collection of work by his contemporaries. In 1946 Cavaillès gave up all curatorial positions and from then on devoted his working life entirely to painting. In his Paris studio (in the rue de Poissy), on his Burgundian estate in Épineuil and in his Cannes apartment, he would paint landscapes, views of harbours and still lifes, while rejoicing in poetic freedom. To quote Delacroix, Jules Cavaillès’ paintings are a ‘feast for the eye’. He exhibited widely and won several prizes, and his paintings are represented in major collections such as the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, and the municipal art galleries of Albi, Marseille, Montpellier, Toulouse, Chicago, Helsinki, Tel Aviv and Zurich.
When Jules Cavaillès died in Épineuil on 29th January 1977 he left behind not only the memory of a warm-hearted artist but also that of an epicurean. Let us end by citing his own evocative words: I sought to create the lyricism of the dishes rather than the atmosphere of the kitchen.
Diana Wiegersma – Jules Cavaillès Research Center, May 2007