This lively and engaging portrait shows Abel Widmer (1805–1838), a pupil at the Institution Saint-Victor, a secondary school for boys in Paris. It was probably painted around 1824, the year Widmer won the school’s annual prize. It is most likely the first of a series of ten portraits of the prizewinners commissioned by the school’s founder and friend of Delacroix, Prosper-Parfait Goubaux (1795–1859). Six of the portraits are known to survive. Delacroix was a young man in his mid-twenties when he painted the portrait, and he was still forging his own style, looking at Old Masters such as Velázquez for inspiration. Degas so admired the portrait that he acquired it in the 1890s for his own collection.
This portrait of Abel Widmer (1805–1838) is one of series of ten portraits, of which six survive, known collectively as The Goubaux Portraits, that Delacroix painted between 1824 and 1834. The series was commissioned by Prosper-Parfait Goubaux (1795–1859), a playwright and translator, who in 1820 founded the Institution Saint-Victor, a secondary school in Paris for boys, which later became the Collège Chaptal. Goubaux and Delacroix were old school friends. Meeting again in 1824, Goubaux commissioned Delacroix to paint portraits of those pupils who had won his school’s annual prize.The portraits hung in the school’s reception room until their dispersal in 1859, following Goubaux’s death. The portrait was eventually acquired by Edgar Degas in the mid-1890s for his own private collection.
Given the date of his prize, it is very likely that Widmer’s portrait was the first of the series to be painted. Although Delacroix included a landscape background in at least one of the other portraits, here he uses a dark olive-brown background as a foil for the warm pinks and creams of Widmer’s face. Despite some surface cracking, the smooth glazes of the flesh tones, which have just the faintest hint of blue-grey stubble, contrast with the freer brushwork of the shirt collar. In addition to its being a lively and engaging rendering of the young Abel Widmer on the verge of manhood, Delacroix’s portrait demonstrates his study of Old Masters as he, still a young artist himself, was forging his own style. In an entry written in April 1824 in his Journal, Delacroix observed how in his own paintings, ‘contours are still a wash and not clean-cut. I must remember this constantly.’ He adds, however, that he is copying the Spanish artist Velázquez, whose work provided an example of ‘what I have been looking for so long – an impasto that is firm yet blended. It seems to me that combining this style of painting with firm and bold contours, one should be able to make some small pictures easily.’
Born in 1805 at Essones, west of Paris, Abel Widmer joined Goubaux’s school in 1822. In 1824 he won the second prize in elementary mathematics in the Concours général, a highly prestigious subject-based academic competition that still operates in France. After two years of further study at the Ecole polytechnique (1825–7), he joined a spinning mill at Essonnes owned by his uncle and in 1832 became director of another mill, at Rouval, that his uncle had bought. However, heart disease led to Widmer’s early retirement and subsequent death, aged only 33, in January 1838.
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