Art Moment: ‘Three Boys Kneeling’ by Pierre Édouard Frère

Pierre Édouard Frère, Interior with Three Boys Kneeling, circa 1850s. Black crayon with incised highlights over brown ink washes on wove paper, 23.6 x 17.4 cm. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.

In the interior of a gritty cottage, three boys are praying on a roughly made bench, in front of a cupboard on top of which sits a votive statue. Their clogs are scattered on the dirt floor. The interior is dim; the only illumination seems to come from a door or window beyond the picture.

Intimate scenes like these were Pierre-Edouard Frere’s forte. The son of a Paris music publisher, Frere (1819 – 1886) enrolled in the famous Ecoles des Beaux-Arts, where he trained under Paul Delaroche for 4 years. By the age of 21, he was married and had a son to support. To earn a living, he engraved vignettes and produced prints and etchings. The majority of Frère’s paintings, however, deal with the life of the kitchen, the workshop, and the dwellings of the humble, which he portrays with characteristic humor and sympathy. John Rushin, the leading art critic of the Victorian era, described Frere’s paintings as “unequalled in sincerity and truth of conception”, and that his pictures combined “the depth of Wordsworth, the grace of Reynolds and the holiness of Raphael.”

Further study

Jay Fisher (editor), The Essence of Line: French Drawings from Ingres to Degas, Pennsylavania State University Press, 2005.

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