Searching for Blaise: Vlaho Bukovac (1855 - 1922) and his Northern Patrons

Painting of a woman in a pink dress in a sunny garden holding a hat and flowers

12 November 2005 - 3 January 2006

Exhibition now finished

This small exhibition marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vlaho Bukovac. He is now regarded as Croatia’s leading artist of the late 19th century.

The exhibition featured six paintings by Blaise Bukovac, as he was known in England, including one of LeDoux’s wife Laura from the Walker Art Gallery’s collection and not exhibited for many years. There are also historical photographs of LeDoux’s and Fox’s picture galleries.

The exhibition is in collaboration with the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate, and was shown there 14 January - 19 March 2006.

This exhibition has been organised through National Museums Liverpool’s Partners in Art Scheme, an initiative that promotes the exchange of artworks, ideas and exhibits with galleries and museums across the region and beyond. A version of the exhibition was shown at Bonham’s London, from 23 - 29 March 2006.

About the artist

Painting showing Jesus holding a small child and a crowd of others

'Suffer the Little Children'

The Croatian artist Vlaho Bukovac (1855-1922) is well-known in Central Europe and the Balkans. He was one of the founders of a modern, Western tradition of painting in that region in the late 19th century. Trained in Paris at a time when Impressionism was catching the public imagination, he painted grand literary and religious scenes, nudes (a benchmark of the classical taste against which Impressionism rebelled) and portraits. Overcoming his initial poverty, he was soon successful, and gained a high reputation in Paris.

Bukovac learnt English when living in America in his early teens, and he first visited England aged sixteen, when he docked in Liverpool on board a merchant ship. From the mid-1880s to the First World War, he regularly came to England, where many of his most popular pictures were imported by the London dealers, Vicars Bros. They included his grand religious masterpiece, 'Suffer the Little Children to Come to Me', and three nude subjects: 'The White Slave', 'Potiphar’s Wife' and 'Adam and Eve'. In Britain, Bukovac painted portraits of Vicars’s clients. Among them were two of the best patrons he would ever have: Samson Fox of Harrogate and Richard LeDoux of Liverpool.

Fox and LeDoux helped change Bukovac’s image. Vicars had marketed Bukovac crudely, as a painter with ‘Parisian’ morals. They treated him as a gentleman, lavished hospitality on him and introduced him to their families and circles of friends. Bukovac’s portraits of them reveal him at his best, as a sensitive and technically accomplished artist.    

Vlaho Bukovac and Samson Fox

Formal portrait painting of a man with a long beard

'Samson Fox' (Copyright of Mercer Art Gallery)

Bukovac first visited Fox in Harrogate in 1888. An art collector and a great lover of music, Fox had made his money as a mechanical and chemical engineer in Leeds, where his companies were responsible for many innovations in manufacture, notably in steamships and railways. In Harrogate, where he was elected Mayor for three years in a row between 1888 and 1891, Fox lived in palatial style at Grove House, a mansion that survives to this day.

Bukovac’s portrait of Fox exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1891, was one of a series of pictures of family and friends that the artist painted as Fox’s guest in Harrogate. But Fox also collected many other paintings by Bukovac. They included medium sized, sentimental works such as 'Scandal', but also several of the exhibition pictures which had made Bukovac’s reputation, including 'The White Slave' and 'Potiphar’s Wife'. Both of these are visible in photographs of the gallery at Grove House. Since the posthumous auction of Fox’s paintings in 1911, which included a total of 17 works by Bukovac, neither has been traced.

The most important of all Fox’s purchases from Bukovac was the huge 'Suffer the Little Children', which the Fox family presented to St. Robert’s church in Harrogate. Shown at the Paris Salon in 1888, it epitomised the unique blend of French academism and Central European exoticism that defined Bukovac’s appeal to British patrons.

The LeDoux Family and Vlaho Bukovac

Painting of a woman in a pink dress in a sunny green garden holding a hat and some flowers

'Mrs LeDoux'

Richard LeDoux (1848/9-1914) was the Liverpool director of the firm Suter, Hartmann & Co., which made composition for ships’ keels. His interest in technological progress in steamships would have brought him into contact with Samson Fox. The families of the two men became friends, and they seem to have enjoyed a friendly rivalry competing for Bukovac’s pictures. A photograph of the music-room at ‘Marlfield’, LeDoux’s villa in West Derby, taken in 1903 shows Bukovac’s 'The Bathers', painted in Zagreb in 1899.

Bukovac enjoyed a particularly close friendship with LeDoux’s wife Laura, of whom he painted at least four separate portraits. The most important of them is full-length in the Walker Art Gallery’s collection (left) , which was exhibited in the Walker in 1892 and at the Paris Salon the following year. The work was painted on Bukovac’s honeymoon in Liverpool, when Mrs Ledoux presented the artist’s young Croatian wife with a fabulous diamond ring.

La Grande Iza

Painting of a naked reclining female figure and a female servant with a towel

In 1913 LeDoux succeeded in buying 'La Grande Iza' , Bukovac’s sensationally successful exhibit at the 1882 Paris Salon. Based on a popular French novel by Alexis Bouvier, the picture had made Bukovac’s name. Samson Fox had tried to buy it at the time, but although he was unsuccessful, his efforts had triggered the first awareness of the artist in England.

Chronology

Painting of two young women working outside

  • 1855: Bukovac born in the fishing village of Cavtat, Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  • 1872: As a sailor on a merchant ship, Bukovac docks at Liverpool. He 'takes tea and toast and visits the museums'.
  • 1877: Begins his studies in Paris, under Cabanel.
  • 1878: First exhibit at the Paris Salon: 'An episode from the Montenegrin War'.
  • 1882: His 'La Grande Iza', based on the popular novel by Alexis Bouvier, is the sensation of the Salon. It is bought by an English collector.
  • 1884: Dealers Vicars Bros begin exhibiting his 'famous' 'White Slave' in their London gallery.
  • 1886: Vicars tour his new sensation, 'Potiphar's Wife', in the provinces, including in Leeds and Liverpool.
  • 1888: Bukovac exhibits 'Suffer the Little Children' at the Paris Salon; it receives an Honourable Mention. It is bought by Vicars, brought to London, and sold to Samson Fox. Bukovac visits Fox in Harrogate for the first time.
  • 1890: Exhibits for the first time at the Royal Academy, a picture titled 'Woodbine'; later owned by Fox.
  • 1891: Bukovac's portraits of Samson Fox and his daughter Louise, painted the previous year in Harrogate, are his exhibits at the Paris Salon. In July he accepts the invitation of the LeDoux family, who own his 'Adam and Eve', to visit them in West Derby, Liverpool.
  • 1892: Bukovac marries. He spends his honeymoon in Liverpool, and paints 'Mrs LeDoux', full-length, shown at that year's Liverpool Autumn Exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery.
  • 1893: 'Mrs LeDoux' shown at the Paris Salon. Bukovac leaves Paris and returns to his homeland, ending the period of his closest contact with the Fox and LeDoux families.
  • 1903: Bukovac leaves Croatia for Vienna, then Prague. Samson Fox dies.
  • 1906: Ten works by Bukovac included in the Austrian Exhibition at Earl's Court, London.
  • 1908: Bukovac re-visits England; portraits of Mrs LeDoux in Liverpool, and the Duchess of Albany (shown at the Royal Academy in 1910).
  • 1911: Seventeen paintings by Bukovac included in the sale of Fox's art collection.
  • 1912: In Liverpool again, Bukovac paints portraits of Richard LeDoux and his daughter Minnie. 'The Bathers', owned by LeDoux, shown at the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition.
  • 1913: LeDoux acquires 'La Grande Iza'.
  • 1914: LeDoux dies, a few weeks before the outbreak of the First World War.
  • 1922: Bukovac dies in Prague, aged 66.