French Artist, (1881-1962)
Jules Emile Elisee Maclet was the son of a gardener who lived in Lyons-en Santerre in Picardy. He was born there in 1881. Since his family was poor, he began to work at an early age, as an assistant to his father. Picardy is renowned for its roses and Maclet used to say that he was born among cabbages and roses. By the mysterious alchemy of genius, the gardener’s son wielded a a painter’s brush almost as soon as he swung a pick and hoe. His father was not only a gardener, but also the sexton in the village church, so the boy inevitably became a choirboy. That brought him to the attention of the local cure, Father Delval. Father Delval was both the parish priest and painter and often on fine Sundays, when Vespers were over, he and young Maclet set out to sketch and paint along the roads or the banks of ponds.
Puvis de Chavannes found the same scenes a source of inspiration and on an April Sunday in 1892, he saw some the work of this twelve-year-old boy was doing beside his clerical mentor. The great artist was so impressed that he sought out the elder Maclet and asked that he allow the boy to study with him. “My son is a gardener, and he will remain a gardener,” was the father’s reply.
In spite of paternal opposition, Elysee Maclet gave up gardening for art. Going to Montmartre, however, did not mean immediate fame. He painted, of course, but earned his living by varnishing iron bedsteads at first; a few months later he got a job decorating the floats for the gala nights at the Moulin Rouge. He also washed dishes in one restaurant; opened oysters in another; served as chef on a ship sailing from Marseilles for Indochina; and when he finally returned to Paris, he painted dolls in crinolines and exhibited them at the Salon de Hurnoristes. But in spite of all these occupations, he found time to paint.
When Maclet arrived in Montmartre, much of the country charm of the area still existed and he put it on canvas, even before Utrillo did so. Biographers have rather tented to pass over in silence the services Maclet rendered to Utrillo. Maclet knew practically all the future great painters of his time, Utrillo among them and it is certain that he aided the star-crossed genius, though his own reluctance to have people write about him may account for the fact that we know of it only through oblique remarks in the records of the time. Maclet painted the “Lapin Agile” and the “Moulin de la Galette” and the ‘Maison de Mimi Pinson” several years before Utrillo did painted them. He painted most often in winter and in this period, skillfully suggesting the snow by leaving bare white spaces in his canvas or paper.
In a short time Maclet won a circle of sincere admirers. The art dealer Dosbourg bought his work, which gave him a fairy reliable source of income and enabled him to devote more time than ever to his painting. From Montmartre he launched out into the suburbs of Paris, painting them with the same indulgent tenderness with which he treated the scenes of Montmartre.
When war broke out in 1914, Maclet served as a medical attendant in a temporary hospital run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. That allowed him to spend his periods of leave back in Montmartre, where he stayed at the ‘Lapin Agile” thanks to the hospitality of his friend Frede. Maclet slept in the cabaret hall and paid for his food by washing dishes and polishing the copper pots. On one of these leaves, he painted two small pictures of Sacre-Coeur and the Moulin de la Galette which he sold to a Mr. Deibler, who combined his profession of official executioner with a love of the fine arts. Mr. Deibler was not his only patron and admirer. Francis Carco, the mayor of Montmartre: the innkeeper know as ”Le pere gay”; the famous writer Colette; the American art dealer Hugo Perlsall regarded him as the equal of the other great painters of the period. Famous dealers of the time, such as Pierre Menant and Matho Kleimann-Boch hung Maclet’s work beside the paintings of Van Gogh and Picasso in their galleries.
When the war ended, Maclet went back to Montmartre to live. In 1918 Francis Carco felt the painter needed to widen his horizons and sent him to Dieppe to stay in a house which Carco rented on a yearly basis. Soon all the wealth of the seacoast scenes appeared on Maclet’s canvases. He spent a year in Dieppe and then returned to Montmartre and to his former subjects. Montmartre was changing, new apartment buildings were going up, taking the place of the stretches of verdures; the Ourcq Canal would soon disappear, the last of the landry boats were slowly gliding down the Seine. With his palette and brush and knife, Maclet seized them all and immortalized them.
In 1923 Maclet entered into a contact with a wealthy Austrian manufacturer, Baron Von Fray. One of the conditions of his contract was that he leave Paris for the south of France. Baron Von Frey sensed that Maclet would know how to handle the brilliant light and intense colors of the Midi. The Baron’s judgment was vindicated only a few hours after Maclet’s arrival in Arles, when the son of an old and famous friend of Van Gogh’s said to him, “Not since Van Gogh have I seen a painter use color as pure as you do.” Maclet stayed in the region from 1924 to 1928. He painted in Orange, Vaison-La Romaine, La Ciotat, Cassis, Golfe Juan, Antibes, Cagnes, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Ville-Franche, Nice, Menton, San Remo, sending back to Von Frey glowing landscapes and glorious floral still lifes. Von Frey reserved for himself almost the total output of this period and sent most of them to America, where wealthy collectors vied to buy them at high prices.
Many magazines devoted artisted to Maclet, and an exhibition of his work was presented in Paris in 1928. Von Frey also had the satisfaction of seeing paintings by Maclet purchased by important museums. But like some years later when the museums of Lyons, Grenoble, and Monte Carlo purchased his work.
At the end of 1928, Maclet went to paint in Corsica. He spent 1929 and 1930 in Brittany and then went back to his native Picardy to paint. In the middle of 1933 he fell seriously ill and was unable to paint for long, long months. After 1935 he resumed his studies of Paris and in 1945 presented a large exhibition of his work under the title ”Around the Moulin” which elicited from Andre Warnod the following glowing tribute: “What a happy spectacle to see Maclet paint. He begins by covering the top of his canvas with paint, the sky, the clouds. Then he attacks the chimneys and then the roofs, and then, floor by floor, he arrives at the street level of the houses… Under his brush, all becomes miraculously organized; he places the figures where they should be, and when he has painted the last paving block at the very bottom of the canvas, then he signs it. And the painting is finished; a happy painting expressing the joy of living.”
In 1957 a Parisian gallery organized a restrospective exhibition of Maclet’s work, and the solid rise in the prices of Maclet’s paintings dates from that retrospective exhibition. When Maclet made sporadic visits to Paris during his years in the Midi, the painters of Montmartre and Montparnasse considered him a painter on the rise; the canvases he had produced while he was in the south of France showed that the peasant from Picardy had become a master. But the general public in France did not grasp his importance and value until 1957.
Five years of life remained to the painter, years beautifully described by Marcel Guicheteau and Jean Cottel in these words: “Maclet had returned to his first loves, to his first poems; but it was with all his experience, all his wisdom that the old man now bent over the familiar motifs; his minor song had become a song full of light. In the evening of his life he could repeat himself without copying himself; explain himself without humiliating himself; remember himself without destroying himself. He had brought his work to such a degree of perfection that each painting from then on justified itself by references to earlier work and conferred, in a certain sense, a retroactive value on those works of a far-off past. The artist had reached the state wherein his work soundly established, across the years, its various pictorial values like echoes answering each other at intervals of ten, fifteen, twenty years, all singing the same harmony.” The gardener from Picardy became a master painter.