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An Uncommon Journey From Orphan to Artist

The 60-second black-and-white silent film shows a kindly looking gentleman in fedora and tie surrounded by a horde of eager English setters vying for a pat. It’s the 1930s, and American dog artist Percival Rosseau (1859 – 1937) moves confidently through his kennels near Old Lyme, Connecticut, like Jay Leno working the front row of his audience.

Those were clearly different times. Rosseau, who as a painter was at the top of his game during the first decades of the 20th century, was born in slave country in Pointe Coupée Parish near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at the most precarious time in American history. The Civil War would sweep away the young Rosseau’s entire universe, taking his father, uncle, and two older brothers in the field and his mother from illness, while General W. T. Sherman destroyed the affluent family’s plantation during his Mississippi campaign.

The story passed down from authors who met Rosseau’s elderly son, Francis, in the 1980s, is that Rosseau (and his sister) were saved by a slave and then raised by a guardian in Kentucky, who taught him how to shoot, hunt, and fish, and at school learned to draw and carve. At 17 he struck out on his own. For the first six years he worked as a cowboy, trading and driving cattle along the Chisholm Trail from Mexico to Kansas, shooting bison to feed his men. With his earnings he got into the lumber business, but lost his timber in an unrecoverable logjam while floating it down the Mississippi River. He then went to New Orleans and started a fruit import business that he moved to New York City. At 35 he’d amassed enough to retire on his investments.

In an amazing switch, the American entrepreneur set sail in 1894 for France to study art, traveling from San Francisco via Honolulu and Hong Kong. Onboard he met another orphan, Nancy Bidwell of Los Angeles—the first white child born in the Arizona Territory. They were married in 1897 and moved to France, where they raised two sons and many hunting dogs in their country home in Rolleboise, about 45 miles northwest of Paris along the Seine River, only a few miles from Giverny, where Claude Monet had lived since 1883.

Rosseau enrolled in the private art school, the Académie Julian, which was very progressive (it accepted women, foreign students, and serious amateurs), compared with the government-sanctioned École des Beaux-Arts.

Rosseau would have studied anatomy and the nude under Jules Joseph Lefebvre, renowned for his gorgeous female figures, and learned composition and draftsmanship from historical painter Tony Robert-Fleury. Charles Hermann-Léon, known for his animals and dramatic hunting scenes, may also have influenced Rosseau.

He would have been exposed to the revolutionary symbolist art movement called “Les Nabis,” which advocated “an expressive use of colour and rhythmic pattern,” that was born at the academy in the 1890s. And during his six-year stay, Rosseau may have known his contemporaries, Henri Matisse (born 1869) and Childe Hassam (born 1859), who also studied there. And yet Rosseau’s early work is most closely associated with the Barbizon School, which rejected religious, mythological, and historical allegories as subjects, instead portraying nature from nature, working en plein air. This field-work approach was made possible by the invention of the portable, collapsible tin paint tube in 1854, followed by the availability of commercially mixed paints, which allowed artists to create colors and textures unavailable until then. (Earlier artists had to painstakingly grind pigments in the studio to mix with linseed and poppy oils.)

Although this movement, named for the rural village 30 miles southeast of Paris in the heart of the Fontainebleau forest where the informal group of like-minded landscape artists congregated, had faded by the 1870s with the deaths of its pioneers (Théodore Rousseau in 1867 and both Camille Corot and Jean-Francois Millet in 1875), its popularity with buyers was at its height when Rosseau arrived in France. “A man should paint what he knows best, and I knew more about animals than anything else. I have run hounds from childhood, and have at my fingertips the thorough knowledge of dogs necessary to picture them faithfully.” The movement fit Rosseau like a glove.

After only three years of study, Rosseau received honorable mention in the 1900 Paris Salon for his nude, Ariadne. His 1903 submission of Diana (using his wife as a model) with two Irish wolfhounds drew attention to his ability to portray dogs. For his 1904 entries, his subject was setters. “The day after the Salon opened I received 11 telegrams asking my prices for the pictures, and I sold both in a few hours. Thereafter I had little trouble selling my work.”

An avid birdshooter, Rosseau reputedly favored the French Darne shotgun, which features a fixed set of barrels and a unique sliding breech system. “In France, I used to spend a great deal of time in the hunting field making sketches from the day the shooting season opened,” wrote Rosseau.


Galleries Representing Percival Leonard Rosseau
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Photo courtesy of William Secord Gallery, New York

In addition to drawing on his experiences in the field, he studied animals in the Paris zoo, the Jardin des Plantes, and did his own anatomical studies of specimens he killed, skinned, and dissected.

Rosseau placed his gundogs in richly textured landscapes bathed in glowing light that bounces off cool streams and golden meadows onto the dogs’ mottled white coats, liquid eyes, and wet noses. Gray boulders are flecked with lavender and sky blue; a tawny horizon breaks down the autumn grasses into a prism of greens and yellows; darker gnarled roots, old oaks, tree-dappled light, and shadow-play form a flattering backdrop for his dogs.

When Rosseau’s business partner fled with his money to Brazil in 1898, the couple lived off Nancy’s dowry, until her agent stole her funds. But Rosseau was already on the road to success, with patrons like Clarence Mackay, president of the Postal Telegraph-Cable Co., and Percy Rockefeller, a director of Bethlehem Steel Corp., Remington Arms, and Western Union, to name a few. He traveled regularly from France to paint their favorite dogs at their private hunting clubs, such as Rockefeller’s Overhills Club in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where the magnate eventually built Rosseau a winter home, studio, and kennels.

World War I forced the Rosseaus to leave France for good. But he found another well-fitting glove in the American Impressionist artists’ colony in Old Lyme. The movement resembled the Barbizon School in its country lifestyle set in a Europe-like topography, proximity to a cultural metropolis (in this case, New York), picturesque subject matter, and plein air practices. These well-dressed “tonalists”—and their dogs—found a convivial and inexpensive meeting place in Florence Griswold’s inn, today a museum.

Rosseau moved his family to an 18 th-century home on Grassy Hill, and turned almost exclusively to painting pointers and English setters. A roomful of paintings of dogs flushing birds and honoring each other’s point might start to resemble each other, but he captured each animal’s unique expression and personality. “I cannot remember a single instance of two dogs being similar in character or temperament, and all this variation is reflected in their faces and has to be caught by the painter,” he wrote.

He found high-strung hunting dogs more difficult to paint than humans. Although he trained his dogs to pose for several hours at a time, “I never try to get them to ‘sit’ for a portrait. After studying the animal carefully, I reconstruct it piece by piece in the attitude I wish.”

In America, Rosseau’s palette brightens and his style, especially his handling of landscapes, becomes looser. Open fields and the dappled light of woodland fringes replace the subdued earth-toned colors of Europe’s somber, old-growth royal forests. Turner Reuter of Red Fox Fine Art suggests that Rosseau painted his dogs “from the inside out, using a bold palette thick with impasto and free impressionistic brushstrokes. His use of light and shade created an atmospheric effect unattainable by other sporting artists of the day.”

When asked to compare the appeal of Rosseau’s work to John Emms’s hounds and terriers or Edwin Megargee’s purebred dogs, dealer Peter L. Villa said, “This best of our native sons is a perceptive observer whose work successfully conveys a sportsman's intimate knowledge of the bird dog in his element.” Art dealer William Secord added, “Rosseau understood dogs—not only their anatomy, but their very nature. His skill and training as a painter allowed him to express this in a painterly, romantic style that captured the essence of a sporting dog in the field.”

A recent surge in interest in Percival Rosseau means that his best oils sell today for as much as $200,000—or more. And that, my friends, says it all.

Brooke Chilvers was delighted to learn that Rosseau lived next to her favorite picnic spot in France, on the chalky cliffs above the Seine River at La Roche Guyon. “In the old days, we used to camp out to avoid breathalizer tests, but now we crawl to a hotel that was King Leopold II of Belgium’s love nest.”



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