Rosseau, Percival Leonard

  • “Two Dogs in the Field” Oil on canvas, 22 x 29 inches (31.5 x 38.5 framed), Signed & Dated 1919 lower right
  • “Two Dogs in the Field” Oil on canvas, 22 x 29 inches (31.5 x 38.5 framed), Signed & Dated 1919 lower right
  • “Two Dogs in the Field” Oil on canvas, 22 x 29 inches (31.5 x 38.5 framed), Signed & Dated 1919 lower right
  • “Two Dogs in the Field” Oil on canvas, 22 x 29 inches (31.5 x 38.5 framed), Signed & Dated 1919 lower right

American, (1859-1937)

Percival Leonard Rosseau was born in 1859 at his parent’s home in Pointe Coupe Parish, about 30 miles from Baron Rouge, Louisiana. While the civil war had shattered his family, Percival persevered and with the help of foster parents finished school; a school where he was fortunately able to study carving and drawing.

His talent for art was put aside, however, while he engaged in various adventures, including the driving of cattle between Mexico and Texas when he was 18-22 years old. He eventually moved to New Orleans where he established an import business. The business did well and after taking a partner, he moved its operations to New York City. Much to the surprise of his partner and friends, once established, he decided to fulfill his artistic ambitions and leaving his business in the hands of his partner, moved to Paris where he enrolled at the Academie Julien, departing from California and visiting Honolulu and Hong Kong.

In 1894 at the age of 35, he enrolled in Academie Julien. It was in Paris that his artistic style developed, for his training was very disciplined, studying for three full years in only black and white, followed by three years in color. He studied under Jules Lefebvre (1836-1911) and Tony Robert-Fleury (1837-1912) who were figurative painters. Hermann Leon, who often painted animals (1838-1907), was also on the staff at the time, but it is uncertain if Rosseau studied with him. His most important influence, however, was from his friends who he met on a sketching trip down the Seine to Rolleboise. They painted in the style of the School of Barbizon, a romanticized vision which was noted for its soft, subdued tones and painterly style.

The Barbizon School was a mid-nineteenth century school of painting which derived its name from Barbizon, a village thirty miles south-east of Paris in the Fontainebleau forest. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the 42,000 acre forest surrounding the palace of Fontainebleau, once the site of the great royal hunts, was the domain of highway robbers and isolated woodsmen. A mere half-century later, one hundred thousand Parisians a year traveled to Fontainebleau to enjoy a respite from the pressures of daily life. The village of Barbizon, once a primitive farming area of perhaps twenty dwellings, became identified with the great revolution in French landscape and animal painting that took place between 1830 and 1880. During that time, Barbizon became a remarkable focus, not only for painters but also for sculptors, poets and novelists.

Because of its closeness to the forest of Fontainebleau, the village of Barbizon became the base to which scores of artists departed, as a retreat from urban life, to paint the various parts and denizens of the great forest. Fontainebleau was like a primeval forest, and artists were attracted to its dense and uncultivated forest and its rocky gorges, boulders and caves. It had the added advantage of being located a short journey from the increasingly mechanized world of Paris.

No longer desirous of painting mythological or religious themes and classical scenes that took place in ancient Greece and Rome, artists chose to paint directly from nature. Studying passionately, with no other object than that of observing nature directly, and expressing what they saw as it impressed them, gave a fresh stimulus to the study of nature.

The inspiration for this new movement came from several different factors: the social, political and economical consequences of the French Revolutions, the rise of Romanticism, and a renewed interest for British painting, where landscape and animal painting had developed earlier, as well as for the 17th century Dutch painters on whom the English tradition had been founded.

The Barbizon painters were essentially colorists, for they held that the dapples and shimmering effects of light in nature could not be effectively depicted with the highly finished, academic approach, and it was into this milieu that the American Rosseau easily found himself.

Rosseau initially painted mostly landscapes and nudes, and continued his training by traveling back and forth between France and America. He received an honorable mention at the Paris Salon of 1900 for one of his nudes, entitled, “Araidne.” His painting of Diana with her two Irish Wolfhounds received much more positive attention when it was exhibited in the Salon of 1903, but the focus of admiration was centered more on the dogs than on the nude. It was in 1903, however, that he painted two pictures of setters for the 1904 Salon. On opening night he received more enquiries than he ever had before, and he sold the work the next day. Indeed, the day after the opening of the Salon exhibition, he received several telegrams about it. In his own words, he said, “ The day afer the Salon opened I received eleven telegrams asking my prices for the pictures, and I sold both in a few hours. Thereafter I had little trouble selling my work. A man should paint what he knows best, and I knew more about animals than anything else. I have ran hounds from childhood, and have at my fingertips the thorough knowledge of dogs necessary to picture them faithfully. It takes years to acquire this.” Describing his technique, he declared that “In France, I used to spend a great deal of time in the hunting field making sketches from the day the shooting season opened. Most of painting over there was from such sketches.”

From that point on, Rosseau devoted himself almost entirely to the painting of dogs, including his famous picture of a panther hunt, with over forty hounds. The picture, which won a gold medal in the salon of 1906, was shipped to New York where it was put on display at The Knoedler Galleries. It was widely acclaimed, with even President Roosevelt writing him to congratulate the artist on the painting’s authenticity.

Rosseau built a house in Rotheboise, near Bonniers, with a studio and kennels, and he executed several commissions for important European sportsmen, but he also did paintings for exhibition at The Knoedler Galleries in New York City. Soon thereafter, Rosseau started to receive commissions for the portraits of purebred dogs, and setters and pointers were to dominate, working for such prominent sportsmen as Percy Rockefeller and Clarence Mackay, whom he stayed with for an extended period in 1912.. While he continued to live in France, he made frequent trips to America to paint dogs, often staying with his clients, hunting with them, and painting their dogs He did occasionally paint other breeds of dogs, and for friends he would sometimes do paintings of horses or pets.

Rosseau commuted between France and the United States for a number of years, spending his summers in Rotheboise and the winters in Old Lyme, Connecticut and Denton, North Carolina. World War I eventually forced him to return to America in 1915. It is said that from this period to the end of his life, he only painted setters and pointers. He purchased a house in Old Lyme, Connecticut where the family lived in the warmer months. An avid sportsman, he did most of his hunting at a private club in Denton and later at Percy Rockefeller’s Overhills Club in Fayetteville. Percy Rockefeller was to become Rosseau’s most important patron, and in 1916 he built Rosseau and his wife, Nancy a house, studio and kennels at Overhills. Rockefeller kept bird dogs and fox hounds on the premises as well as horses for quail and fox hunts. Rosseau and his family would spend the colder months there, returning to Connecticut when it warmed up.

While Rosseau’s early work is more in the academic tradition of the nineteenth century, he soon developed a loose, painterly style which was influenced by the work of the Barbizon School of painters that he had come in touch with in France.

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