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Geffroy, Gustave

    Image Credit: Paul Cezanne

    Full Name: Geffroy, Gustave

    Other Names:

    • Gustave Geffroy

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 01 June 1855

    Date Died: 24 April 1926

    Place Born: Paris, Île-de-France, France

    Place Died: Paris, Île-de-France, France

    Home Country/ies: France

    Subject Area(s): biography (general genre) and Impressionist (style)

    Career(s): art critics and biographers


    Art critic and novelist; first biographer of Monet and early historian of Impressionism. Geffroy’s parents moved to Paris from Morlaix, Brittany the year before his birth. He attended the Collège Chaptal, Paris between 1868-1870. At his father’s death in 1870, he left school without earning his lycée degree to work in a bank. Geffroy met Louis-Nicolas Ménard (1822-1901), a hellenist, who piqued an interest in art. With his help, Geffroy founded a journal, Paris-Revue, which lasted a year. Salon reviews were written by Geffroy’s friend, the engraver Victor-Louis Focillon (1849-1918). In 1880 Geffroy joined the editorial staff of the newly-founded newspaper La Justice under Georges Clemenseau (1841-1929), who became a mentor. A friendship with Edmond de Goncourt, begun in 1882, nutured an appreciation in Naturalist literary theories. He rose to art critic of La Justice in 1884. He met Rodin the same year. Through Goncourt’s literary salon, known as the grenier, Geffroy met other writers, including Émile Zola. On a trip researching a prison of Napoleon III’s reigme for a book, Geffroy and Focillon met Claude Monet at Belle-Ile-en-Mer, France, in 1886 whom he already greatly admired. Monet introduced him to other Impressionist painters at the Café Riche dinners in Paris. In 1892 Geffroy published a piece, “Histoire de l’impressionnisme” (History of Impressionism), the first historic treatment of the full artistic movement. The same year the first volume of his collected articles on art, La Vie artistique, appeared. The work eventually ran to eight volumes, completed in 1903. The following year, 1893 Geffroy moved to Le Journal as art critic. His early championing of Rodin was rewarded by a sponsorship of a Légion d’honneur award by the artist and Goncourt. His support of Cézanne gained him a portrait (today, Musée d’Orsay) the same year. A champion of art for the masses, he campaigned for a museum of decorative art for the working classes, the Musée du Soir, to be open evenings when laborers could visit. His later writing can largely be seen as an attempt to fill this goal. He was appointed an official for art at the 1900 Paris Expo. Together with the young Henri Focillon, Victor-Louis Focillon’s son, he published the first volume of his series Les Musées d’Europe (The Museums of Europe) in 1900, a narrative tour of art. His appointment as director of the Manufacture des Gobelins in 1908 (through Clemenseau) curtailed his criticism writing. He was named president of the l’Académie Goncourt in 1912. Perhaps feeling a rush to be the first to document the life and work of Claude Monet, Geffroy compiled the first biography and catalog of the artist’s work in 1922. By that time Geffroy had sold most of his astutely collected masterpieces to pay for debts. A final art series, Maîtres anciens et modernes (Old Masters and Modern) appeared in 1923. He died three years later. A street, rue Gustave-Geffroy, bordering the Gobelins, was named after him in 1937. Geffroy’s overview history of Impressionism was more influential the initial treatment of Théodore Duret in 1878 because of its historical distance and the personal recollections he was able to employ. The same year as his book, 1892, the writer Georges Lecomte (1867-1958) published L’Art impressionniste, d’après la collection privée de M. Durand-Ruel (The Impressionist Art, from the Private Collection of Durand-Ruel) a survey confined to an individual collection. Though Geffroy’s book drew from previous Impressionist sources such as Edmond Duranty and Duret, his work embraced a history of exhibitions and responses. Though not an avant-garde critic–the Impressionist group had disbanded and all their major battles won by his publication–he was the first to understand among other things, Monet’s series paintings, Rodin’s unorthodox poses and Cézanne’s “unfinished” pictures (Paradise, 1985). Like his friend, Edmond de Goncourt, he rejected idealistic and academic art and much of Symbolist writing in favor of naturalism. His own writing was intended to educate; his contemporaries considered him able to create verbal equivalents for works of visual art (Paradise, 1985). Methodologically, his approach his approach heralds the era of formalism; in the Musées d’Europe for example he connects Corot and Rembrandt as painters of light. Though an appreciator of later movements (Geffroy as one of the first critics to praise Cézanne in 1894)–Geffroy claimed bewilderment at the later art movements of Fauvism and Cubism. His attempt at documentary art history was less successful. He sent his friend Monet written questions for the biography which Monet famously responded with one-word answers; the book is considered important but unreliable (Paradise, Dictionary of Art). Élie Faure, Louis Vauxcelles, the poet and art critic André Salmon (1881-1969) and Apollinaire all cited him as influential to their own work.

    Selected Bibliography

    La vie artistique. 8 vols. Paris: E. Dentu, 1894; Constantin Guys: l’historien du Second Empire. Paris: Floury, 1904; Claude Monet: sa vie, son temps, son oeuvre. Paris: G. Crés, 1922.


    Gazette des Beaux-Arts 13 (June 1926): 321-325; Denommé, Robert Thomas. The Naturalism of Gustave Geffroy. Geneva: Librarie Droz, 1963; Schapiro, Meyer. Paul Cézanne. 3rd ed. New York: Abrams, 1965, p. 94; Bazin, Germain. Histoire de l’histoire de l’art; de Vasari à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 1986 p. 492; Rewald, John. A History of Impressionism. 4th ed. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973, p. 566; Paradise, Joanne Culler. Gustave Geffroy and the Criticism of Painting. New York: Garland, 1985; Jensen, Robert. Marketing Modernism in fin-de-siècle Europe. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 99-100; Paradise, Joanne Culler. “Geffroy, Gustave.” Dictionary of Art 12: 234; [obituaries:] Dadhilac, P.E. “Gustave Geffroy.” L’Illustration (April 1962): 349; Salmon, Andre. “Gustave Geffroy.” L’Art Vivant (April 15, 1926): 281-282.

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Geffroy, Gustave." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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