Important Australian + International Fine Art
30 April 2014


(1836 - 1911, French)

oil on panel

32.0 x 15.0 cm

signed and dated upper left: Jules LeFebvre 1872

Private sale

Private collection, Paris
Private collection, Melbourne
Leonard Joel, Melbourne
Private collection, Melbourne

Catalogue text

Jules Joseph Lefebvre's La Cigale comes from that grand period of French Salon painting when narrative reigned supreme. Drawn from history, biblical and classical sources, the female nude so populated their paintings that Théophile Gautier called the 1863 Salon the 'Salon of Venus'.1 Young Parisian models were transformed into goddesses of love, liberty, and other uplifting notions. One such, Lefebvre's La Vérité, 1870 had its genesis at the same time as Frédéric Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty; similar of pose, the former revealing all through her naked state.2 Nineteenth-century Paris was the artistic capital of the world; but the names on people's lips were not Claude Monet or Paul Cé zanne, rather Alexandre Cabanel and Jean-Léon Gérôme. Gérôme also became the darling of collectors from the United States of America, his Pygmalion and Galatea, 1890 residing today in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was the annual Paris Salon, the Salon of the Société  des Artistes Francais, that determined who was who in the world of art.3 Paintings of Greek and Roman times provided all the grandeur of Hollywood epics, their Marilyn Monroes dubbed 'Venus', or 'Circe'. While nudes abounded, they were respectively veiled in history, boudoir eroticism masked in the acceptability of mythology or classicism. The artists were also much given to allegory and moralising, Lefebvre's La Cigale being a classic example.

Lefebvre took his subject 'la cigale', (the cicada or grasshopper) from Aesop's well-known fable of the grasshopper and the ant, quoting Fontaine's translation when he exhibited the larger version in the 1872 Salon - 'Quand la bise fut venue' (When the cold wind blows). Aesop tells that while the ant laboured to store up food in the good times of summer, the grasshopper sang and danced the time away. With the coming of autumn cold, la cigale in her nakedness, realizes her vulnerability and that the season of winter will be as bare as she. As often in his art, Lefebvre engaged maiden beauty, on this occasion to narrate the fate of the unprepared. It has been suggested that Lefebvre also had in mind recent French history, the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, of Napoleon III's lack of preparation, economic collapse and the Commune uprising. This was the prelude to La Cigale's debut in the 1872 Salon. It's popularity led to the painting of several versions including the monumental one in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, acquired in 2005. Her companion, Lefebvre's Chloe, 1875, is one of Australia's great icons, displayed resplendent in Young and Jackson's Hotel in Melbourne city. Lefebvre's paintings likewise enrich many of the world's great collections - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and The Heritage Museum, St Petersburg, included.

1. Wolf, N., The Art of the Salon: The Triumph of 19th-Century Painting, Prestel, New York, 2012, p. 62. The Emperor Napoleon III was so taken by Cabanel's Birth of Venus in the1863 Salon that he bought it there and then for the outrageous sum of 20,000 francs.
2. Lefebvre's La Vérité, 1870 is now in the collection of the Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
3. Often referred to as the 'Old Salon'.