They Knew What They Liked

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Paul Chabas, a pupil of Bouguereau and Robert Fleury and veteran member of the conservative Société des Artistes Français, had long been a painter of graceful and flattering portraits in which he made every woman look like a social symbol—at least as elegant as a baroness. But he had another string to his bow; “il a rendu avec beaucoup de charme le nu feminin,” according to Bénézit. This gave him occasion to paint innumerable young women of France, bare as jaybirds, in soft rosy grays as they took a bath or got into or out of assorted lakes, rivers, and boats.

But it was September Morn, painted in the early morning sunlight on the shore of Lake Annecy in Upper Savoy, that brought Chabas an international reputation. From the commercialization of his picture the artist received not a sou. “Nobody has been thoughtful enough to send me even a box of cigars,” he once remarked plaintively. Chabas died in 1937, rich and famous, but the only picture in his room when he died was a copy which he had painted from memory of the nude who made him famous. The model, he revealed shortly before his death, had made a fortunate marriage, was the mother of three children, and had put on the pounds. The gallant academician never revealed her name.

The picture was purchased in the year of the great American uproar by a wealthy Russian for the equivalent of $10,000. He took it to Moscow, and no more was heard of it. Long believed lost, it was located in Paris by the United Press in 1935. It was in the private art collection of Calouste S. Gulbenkian, owner of, among other treasures, five per cent of the stock of the Iraq Petroleum Company, Ltd. Installed in the finest house in Paris, just off the Champs Elysées, guarded by a thirty-five foot barricade, burglar alarms, a canine corps, and a staff of private secret service men, September Morn was, at last, in very select company, artistically speaking—hanging among the choicest works of Boucher, Fragonard, Guardi, La Tour, Monet, Cézanne, Renoir, and Degas.

Perhaps because, as the wizened little oil wizard said, “Only the very best is nearly good enough for me,” the Chabas found its way into the hands of a New York gallery. A Philadelphia broker and sportsman saw it, bought the painting, and in 1957 presented it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum put the canvas on public exhibition, appropriately enough in the month of September, in the Great Hall at the foot of the stairs, flanked by an honor guard of potted ferns. It was the place reserved for only the most important new acquisitions.

The Metropolitan was cautious about saying that Chabas’ etherealized nude constituted great art. It was, Dudley T. Easby, Jr., secretary of the museum, said, “an art document,” which deftly moved Miss Morn into the sociology department. A couple of longhaired art students glanced at the picture, looked at each other, and uttered a single disdainful word: “Chabas.” A suburban housewife, after studying the picture, said thoughtfully, “It could blend with any rug or furniture.”

Thus, after fifty years of living dangerously, September Morn achieved peace and respectability at last.

* He looks up, as a matter of fact.