In this ongoing series for Fine Art Today, we take a longer look at the history and features of a soon-to-be-available artwork of note. This week: Henri Gervex, “Rolla.”
Although French painter Henri Gervex (1852-1929) achieved professional success at a relatively early age and was entrusted with the execution of several important official paintings, his most recognizable and iconic work, “Rolla,” heads to auction at Sotheby’s on May 25.
Born in Paris in 1852, Gervex studied under the tutelage of Alexandre Cabanel, Pierre-Nicolas Brisset, and Eugène Fromentin. Early in his career, Gervex painted mainly mythological subjects, but established himself by painting scenes of modern life in France. Several of the artist’s works were produced from public settings, including “The Distribution of Awards,” “The Coronation of Nicolas II,” and “The History of the Century,” among several others.
Highly controversial, the artist’s painting “Rolla” is an erotic narrative inspired by an 1833 poem by Alfred de Musset (1810-1857). The Muse d’Orsay reports, “The text recounts the destiny of a young bourgeois, Jacques Rolla, falling into a life of idleness and debauchery. He meets with Marie, a teenager who found in prostitution an escape from misery. In Gervex’s painting, Rolla is seen ruined, standing by the window, his eyes turned to the girl sleeping. He is about to commit suicide by poison.” The painting was rejected from the Salon by the Beaux-Arts administration, though scholars believe Gervex was considered an outsider based on his age rather than the nature of his painting.
As one of the artist’s most iconic paintings, its availability during Sotheby’s May 25 European Paintings sale is big news. The painting is monumental in size and is a gorgeous interpretation of Musset’s poem. Sotheby’s reports, “Although ‘Rolla’ can be seen as the heir to Manet’s self-possessed ‘Olympia’ of 1865, in this way the depiction of Marie herself was relatively uncontroversial — being an academically painted nude, comparable to Gervex’s other Salon paintings of the 1870s, or indeed to the nude in his tutor Alexandre Cabanel’s ‘Naissance de Venus’, a favorite of Napoleon III.” The painting headlines a major lineup of outstanding pictures and is expected to sell between $600,000 and $900,000.
To view the full catalogue, visit Sotheby’s.
This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.


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