Paul Gavarni

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Portrait of Paul Gavarni
Self-portrait of Paul Gavarni

By Henri Béraldi

Paul Gavarni was born Guillaume-Sulpice Chevallier—He first signed his work Hippolyte Chevalier.
A mere article would hardly be adequate to encompass the work and the life of the artist who depicted the mores of the nineteenth century. We’ll simply try to give here essential biographical information and to outline the three phases in the evolution of Gavarni’s talent. Anyone wishing to collect his work should own the catalogue by MM Mahérault et Bocher(1).

Gavarni came to light relatively late when he was already in his thirties. He was a Parisian, born January 13, 1804, rue des Vieilles-Haudriettes of Sulpice Chevallier, born in 1745, and of Marie-Monique Thiémet, born in 1770. Marie-Monique was a sister of Guillaume Thiémet, painter, artist and merry humbug, who was Gavarni’s godfather. He started working with an architect while still a child, and later went to work at a precision instrument factory. In 1818, he studied mathematics and went to school at the École du conservatoire, to learn to draw machines. From this education, he retained a taste for mathematics and the speculation of pure theory on scientific issues. He retained it to such an extent that, at the end of his life, this taste turned into an obsession.

When he was twenty, he began to draw small lithographs for Miss Naudet and for Blaisot, to earn some money, in particular the album Récréations diabolicofantasmagoriques (Devilish and phantasmagorical recreations), released in 1825, and of which the copy in the Bibliothèque Nationale might be the only one left. He got a job with Adam, an engraver who, in 1824, offered to send him to Bordeaux to make an engraving of the bridge. The young man agreed to this assignment and to the twelve hundred francs salary that came with it. He left for Bordeaux, but couldn’t adjust to office work and resigned in 1825.

With a child-like lack of foresight, he then set out on a trip, walking stick in hand, with a few drawings, a few clothes, a pipe and his pencils as sole luggage. He reached Tarbes in a state of absolute poverty and soon found himself in a most precarious situation. Fortunately, he was accommodated by Mr. Leleu, chief surveyor of the land registry. Under the guise of an occupation in his department, Mr. Leleu provided him with room and board, a secure and quiet existence, pleasant acquaintances and the opportunity to draw landscapes, to write his impressions and to go touring the Pyrenees. Struck by the beauty of the Cirque de Gavarnie, Chevallier remembered this name when he had to choose one for himself.

(1) François Mahérault wrote under the pen name of Armelhault.