Émile Auguste Hublin was born and raised in Angers, the historical capitol of the region known as Anjou in northwestern France. Located adjacent to the Loire valley, Angers had long been an important market town, as well as a center of education and culture. The young Hublin would have had abundant opportunities to study a remarkable range of art—from Louis I of Anjou’s famous medieval Apocalypse tapestries to the art collection at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. The museum, created at the end of the eighteenth century in the wake of the French Revolution, would have been a particularly important resource for an aspiring painter living far from the riches of Parisian collections.
Born on 2 July 1830, Hublin began life just a month before the “citizen king,” Louis-Philippe, took control of France in the July Revolution. The new monarch proclaimed his intent of maintaining a “juste milieu”, a middle-of-the-road course that would serve the people while maintaining a constitutional form of monarchy. In Paris, this proved to be a tumultuous period as royalist and republican factions strove for ultimate control. In Angers, however, the life of this primarily agricultural center remained relatively untouched by political upheaval. Hublin seems to have spent his youth pursuing his studies in the local schools before leaving for Paris in the late 1840s or early 1850s.
The exact date of his arrival in Paris is obscured by the revolution of 1848 when Louis-Philippe was forced to abdicate by the republican socialist coalition that established the Second Republic. Whether or not Hublin was in the military at this time remains unknown, although it would have been the standard practice for young men to perform their obligatory military service in their late teens or early twenties.
What is known is that Hublin entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts on 6 April 1855 at age 24. By this time, the short-lived Second Republic had been overthrown by Napoleon III, who then established the relatively stable Second Empire.
At the Ecole, Hublin studied under the direction of the elderly François-Edouard Picot, a neoclassical painter who had worked with Jacques-Louis David. Picot’s neoclassical approach had not only received numerous honors, but had also attracted many of the students who would become the leading academic painters of the next generation, including William Adolphe Bouguereau, Alexandre Cabanel and Jean-Jacques Henner. Hublin made his Salon debut in 1861 and continued to exhibit there until at least 1880.
The influence of neoclassicism is clearly evident in Hublin’s work, harking back to the sculptural forms of Jacques-Louis David more thoroughly than most of his contemporaries. A painting such as Le Goûter from 1870, for example, depicts a conventional genre scene of a lovely young woman feeding a dove, but Hublin’s composition is grounded in the late portraiture of David.
The opaque background creates a flat plane beyond which the viewer’s eye cannot see; the girl’s adolescent body is both idealized and substantial as if it was based on ancient Roman sculpture; and the color palette is subdued in order to focus attention on the interaction between the figure and the gentle bird which has settled on her skirt. This style of painting will become Hublin’s hallmark, distinguishing him from colleagues who embraced the fashionably insubstantial depiction of the human body.
Beginning in the 1870s, Hublin seems to have traveled frequently to Brittany—or perhaps back home to Angers with occasional painting trips to nearby Brittany. His 1872 painting of Two Beggar Girls from Quimperle testifies to his interest in the region, and to his appreciation of the local customs—and costumes—of the residents of this small medieval town. Like so many others, from Dagnan-Bouveret to Gauguin, Hublin hoped to record the vanishing world of rural life in the face of ever-expanding industrialization; Brittany seemed to offer an enclave that retained its deep rural roots.
Other paintings, such as The Lonely Maid, 1873, or A Friend in Need, 1879, spotlight young peasant women staring pensively out at the viewer or into the distance. Again, the figures are fully three-dimensional in form, a direct contrast to the increasingly disembodied females that were favored in the academic salons at this time. Likewise, the costumes are more akin to the ragtag clothing of Courbet’s Stonebreakers than the prettified peasant garb of Jules Breton. Hublin’s work is thus an unusual blend of neoclassicism, mid-century realism, and academic tradition.
Nonetheless, he was a successful academic painter, with regular exposure at the annual Salon exhibitions, and a thriving market for his work. His images of young peasant women were undoubtedly sold in the growing number of commercial galleries in Paris, and perhaps also in London. He seems to have been particularly popular with British collectors, where the auction records for his paintings show a steady increase in price throughout the twentieth century.
Like so much else about Émile Auguste Hublin, information about the exact date of his death is uncertain, but it seems to have occurred around 1891.
Written by Janet Whitmore, Ph.D.
Herbert Art Gallery & Museum
New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester, UK