André Gill was a famous French cartoonist who turned to painting after the Parisian Commune, at a time when the new French government did not appreciate humour or satire.
He gave a very personal meaning to “The nightingale”, a literary fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen: the emperor of China was saved from depression by the natural sound of a nightingale after the breakdown of his mechanical bird.
Our painter instead favours the artistic sound of a violin above the natural sound of a whistling bird.
Sadly neither music nor art could save Gill when his son died at a premature age. He was driven crazy from grief.
About André Gill
French caricaturist, painter and “chansonnier” (cabaret artist)
Paris 1840 – 1885 Saint-Maurice
His real name was Louis-Alexandre Gosset de Guines. He was the natural son of the count de Guines and a seamstress.
During his studies at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture he adopted the pseudonym André Gill in homage to James Gillray (1757 – 1815), an English cartoonist who is considered the father of the political cartoon.
As a caricaturist Gill had regularly problems with French magistrates, although his drawings were accurate, but certainly not cruel. His style was very influential: he portrayed politicians and others with very large heads on slender puppet-like bodies.
André Gill lived a Bohemian life of excesses. He became also politically involved in the period of social unrest in the early 1870s. France had engaged in a disastrous war with Prussia and its German allies in the summer of 1870. Within a few months Emperor Napoleon III surrendered at Sedan to Chancellor Bismarck, the Germans besieged Paris and held a triumphant march on the Champs Elysées in March 1871. The Parisians reacted with a radical socialist revolution, The Paris Commune, that only lasted for two months and ten days. In that period Gill joined Gustave Courbet’s Fédération des Artistes de Paris that named him
curator of the Musée du Luxembourg.
Following the bloody end of The Commune Gill understood that the new French Third Republic lacked his sense of humour and satire. He therefore turned from caricature to painting. Our painting dates from 1876.
By 1878 André Gill, then still the best-known caricaturist of the day, had a pupil, Emile Cohl (1857 – 1938), who was to become the father of the animated cartoon.
In May 1880 Gill’s first child, a son named André-Louis-Jacques, was born. But sadly the next year, six months old, the baby died. Gill had made a beautiful painting on this occasion (today at the Musée du Petit Palais), which had been shown at the Salon of May 1881. Our painter was profoundly shaken by this terrible event. He was found disorientated in Brussels (where he had been working on paintings for a panorama) in October of that same year. He was hospitalised and friends of his were finally able to bring him back to France. Gill, who had succumbed to mental illness, was taken into the lunatic asylum of Charenton in Saint-Maurice (in the Val-de-Marne, just outside Paris). Most of his remaining four years he would stay here. He was released from the asylum at the end of April 1885, but just three days later his corpse was found on a heap of stones not far from there.
During the Paris Commune Gil had been a member of a medical corps. He had written “when will they build hideouts for imbeciles instead of asylums for lunatics.” … .
He was re-buried, two years after his death, at the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where you can still see his tomb decorated with his bust.
About the subject of our painting
Gill took the subject of this intriguing painting from a literary fairy tale from 1843 written by the Danish writer and poet Hans Christian Andersen (1805 – 1875). With three other original fairy tales, amongst which “The ugly duckling” it was published in Andersen’s “New Fairy Tales”.
Our story tells of the Emperor of China who enjoys every evening the songs of a nightingale. He looses interest in the real bird after having received a very precious mechanical bird. When that one breaks down after a year the emperor falls ill and just when he is about to die (Death sits already on his breast) the real nightingale starts to sing through the open window and the emperor recovers immediately.
Andersen wrote The Nightingale and two more fairy tales as an expression of his love for the young Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (1820 -1887), whom he had fallen in love with. He proposed to her while she was touring in his homeland Denmark, but she replied she saw him as a brother. Lind became a well-known soprano, … nicknamed the Swedish Nightingale.
For the subject of this fairy tale Andersen must also have been impressed by the Chinese motifs at the Tivoli amusement park, which had opened the very same year (1843) that he wrote The Nightingale.
Funny enough a few years later (in 1848/49) Jenny Lind lived the story of The Nightingale. She had fallen in love in London with Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849), who suffered from tuberculosis and who was soon to die from it: Chopin said he felt better when she sang for him. In May 1849 Lind even travelled to Paris in a vain attempt to marry the ailing Romantic composer – piano virtuoso, who refused this. Sadly he died just a few months later in October of the same year. Lind had been helping him financially to pay for the cost of his treatments. (information taken from “Chopin and Jenny Lind. New research” by Cecilia and Jens Jorgensen, 2005)
About the meaning of our painting
The title of our painting has been written on the stretcher. How did André Gill interpret the tale of Hans Christian Andersen to come to this remarkable composition? One may wonder whom the girl with a violin stands for and what that dead nightingale at her feet means.
I think that André Gill made a very personal interpretation of the tale. It is no longer about the confrontation between a whistling live bird and a mechanical device.
He clearly favours the music of a violin above the natural sound produced by a nightingale: the girl with a dirty foot stands for the innocence of the nightingale who returned to the forest after the emperor had replaced it by a mechanical toy. As to the dead nightingale it can only stand for the broken mechanical bird of the tale.
André Gill must have favoured the music of the young violin player, of an artist, to the song of the bird. The innocent naked young girl plays the violin to save us, maybe even to save himself. Five years after having finished this painting this sensitive artist’s young son suddenly passed away and André Gill just lost it: music would not cure his mental health.
About our painting
After his son’s death our painter remained most of the time at the asylum of Charenton. But he also had better periods of lucidity during which he returned home, was able to paint and even to exhibit his artwork. His friends regularly visited him and took him outside to a restaurant. In January 1883 his friends, amongst whom his pupil Emile Cohl, arranged the sale of the content of his studio, especially of his paintings, to pay for his treatment. Our painting, “Le requiem du rossignol”, is mentioned in Hippolyte Mireur’s Dictionary of auctions (“Dictionnaire des ventes d’art faites en France et à l’étranger pendant les XVIIIeme et XIXeme siècles”) from 1911: it was sold for 500 francs January 28th 1883. According to Jean-Valmy Baysse in “André Gill, l’impertinent” (1991) it made 700 francs.
Saturday July 3rd 1886 an eloquent article by Jean Richepin about André Gill headed the “Supplémént Littéraire” of Le Figaro Newspaper. The journalist mentions a few of his paintings and of his panoramas. But there was one painting that he particularly loved, ours:
“and remember especially the "Requiem du Rossignol", a young girl standing, with slender and suave forms, with golden hair like autumn leaves, eyes shining with tears, who plays a violin leaning on her thighs ‘à l’italienne’, while between her feet lies the corpse of the bird, the wings half-folded, the little legs clenched and stiff.”
“et rappelez-vous surtout le « Requiem du Rossignol », une adolescente debout, aux formes grêles et suaves, aux cheveux mordorés comme des feuilles d'automne, aux yeux brillants de larmes, qui joue d'un violon appuyé à l'italienne sur sa cuisse, tandis qu'entre ses pieds gît le cadavre de l'oiseau, les ailes à demi éployées, les petites pattes crispées et raides.”
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is such a striking image.
Because music could not save this vulnerable artist. The genius of art portrayed in “le Réquiem du rossignol” could have saved the emperor of China in his interpretation of Andersen’s fairy tale, but not the painter himself in real life.