Auguste-Adolphe-Leon Belly (1827-1877)
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Auguste Belly was both an Orientalist painter and a member of the Barbizon school of painters. He was born in Saint-Omer in the Pas de Calais, and briefly studied with the history painter Francois Edouard Picot. He then received his formative training with Constant Troyon, the landscape painter, and member of the Barbizon school.
In 1849, he visited Barbizon, where he painted and met Theodore Rousseau, as well as Jean Baptiste Corot, and Jean Francois Millet. He was particularly influenced by Rousseau. In later years, Belly was to hold weekly Soirees, with his mother in their home in Paris. They were frequented by leading artists of the day, including Corot, and Rousseau.
He made three trips to the Orient. The first trip was in 1850, when he traveled to Greece, Syria, and the Black Sea, in the company of de Saulcy, and Edouard Dessert. He then returned with the painter Edouard Imer, and traveled up the Nile with him, and a piano! They listened to Bach and Mozart during their travels. His last visit was in 1857, when he made preliminary drawings for his great painting,” Pilgrims going to Mecca.
Belly was an incredibly successful artist of his time. Four landscapes which he produced after his first trip to the Orient, won him immediate praise at the Salon of 1853, and from this time onwards, his paintings won him only praise. In 1861, he won a First Class medal at the Salon, and one year after that he was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor.
The idea for Belly’s masterpiece, “Pilgrims going to Mecca,” came during his second trip to Egypt in 1855. In a letter dated first of June 1856, he recorded his intention to paint a desert scene with Arabs, and dromedaries. He stated that he wanted to reproduce like Courbet, “the truly beautiful and interesting features of the everyday life of our fellow men.” Belly was in a sense an Oriental realist. The scene that he chose to reproduce was the annual caravan of the Pilgrimage to Mecca, setting out from Cairo. The whole journey took thirty seven days. This official caravan was a highly organized affair, and Belly faithfully depicted it. He carefully reproduced the social cross section of the procession. The Shaykh al-Haj, who was the director of the pilgrimage lead the way, followed by the poor pilgrims, after those came the wealthier pilgrims. His attention to detail in the painting is striking, and we see on the left of the procession a hunched figure leading a woman, and a child on an ass, which seems to make an allusion to the biblical flight into Egypt. He had great success with this painting, which now hangs in the Musee d’Orsay.
He admired the works of the Oriental painters, Antoine-George-Prosper Marilhat, and also those of Alexandre Decamps, who was of course one of the first French nineteenth century painters to turn from neoclassicism to romanticism.
Belly was passionate about Egypt, and the Orient in his art, however, he also painted landscapes of Normandy, and the Sologne. In 1867, he bought some land in Mountauban, where he spent a great deal of time painting in the surrounding forests, and pasture lands of the Sauldre. He was sadly plagued by illness in the last few years of his life, and died in Paris at the age of fifty.
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