Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Legros, Alphonse
LEGROS, ALPHONSE (1837–1911), painter, sculptor, and etcher, born at Dijon on 8 May 1837, was the second son in a family of seven brothers and sisters of Lucien Auguste Legros, an accountant who came from the neighbouring village of Véronnes. His mother was Anne Victoire, daughter of Jean Baptiste Louis Barrie, mechanic, of Dijon. Legros spoke French all his life. Sent to the Ecole des Beaux- Arts at Dijon at an early age, he was intended to qualify for an artistic trade. To the end of his career early wanderings to the farms of his relatives around Dijon supplied him with subjects for his works. Leaving the Dijon school in 1850, he was apprenticed to one Maître Nicolardo, house decorator and painter of images. In 1851 he travelled towards Paris to take up another situation, but passing through Lyons he worked for six months as journeyman wall-painter with the decorator Beuchot, who was at work in the chapel of Cardinal Bonald in the cathedral. Legros was employed on the ornamental work in fresco. One day an Italian engaged in laying the mosaic pavement was in difficulties over the design, and asked Legros to draw it out for him. The boy designed it afresh, to the Italian's admiration. 'Ce fut,' Legros said, 'mon premier orgueil d'artiste et ma première sensation d'art.'
Arrived in Paris, Legros worked with Cambon, scene-painter and decorator of theatres, an experience which developed breadth of handling and decorative quality in his work and incidentally a gift for histrionic mimicry. At the same time he attended the drawing school of M. Lecoq de Boisbaudran in the rue de l'Ecole de Médecine, a master who developed in his pupils a power of drawing from memory both scenes of nature and pictures in the Louvre. Legros, like his fellow-pupils Bonvin, Fantin-Latour, and Regamey, spent whole days in the Louvre, and the excellence of Legros's drawing from memory of Holbein's portrait of Erasmus excited Lecoq's especial interest in his pupil, who thenceforth worked in his master's studio. Legros's drawing of the Erasmus is reproduced in Lecoq's 'Training of the Memory of Art,' translated by L. D. Luard (1911). The profile portrait by Holbein had a lasting influence on Legros; it may be seen even in his later works, such as 'Prière de Noël,’ perhaps the best picture he painted.
In 1855 Legros attended the evening classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and acquired there a lifelong love of drawing from the antique; some of these studies, done at various periods in chalk and in gold-point, are in the British Museum print room.
Legros sent to the Salon of 1857 two portraits; one was rejected and was sent to the exhibition of protest organised by Bonvin in his studio; the other, which was accepted, was a profile portrait of his father, a beardless head recalling the Erasmus, now in the museum at Tours, presented by the artist when his friend Cazin was conservateur. Champfleury, who noticed the work in the Salon, sought out the artist and enlisted him in the group of so-called ‘Realists,’ a school of protest against the academical trifles of the degenerate Romantics. Legros was already associated with men like Bonvin, Bracquemond, Fantin-Latour, Manet, and Ribot, and was dubbed ‘Realist’ more because it was the war-cry for the time than for any other reason. Legros thus won the support of Baudelaire, Champfleury, and Durantez, who hoped for a revival of art through the young ‘realists.’ He appears in Fantin-Latour's well-known group of portraits called ‘Hommage à Delacroix.’
In 1859 Legros's ‘Angelus’ was in the Salon, the first of those quiet church interiors with kneeling figures of patient women by which he is best known in England. It was in the collection of Sir Francis Seymour Haden [q. v. Suppl. II] Baudelaire, in an article devoted to this little masterpiece, called Legros a religious painter gifted with the sincerity of the old masters. ‘Ex Voto,’ a work of great power, painted in 1861, and now in the Museum of Dijon, was received by his friends with enthusiasm, but only got a mention at the Salon. During this period Legros made his living by the occasional sale of his etchings and lithographs, and by private teaching. A pupil, son of M. de Laborde, Directeur des Archives, took him for a fortnight's tour through Catalonia in Spain. He saw nothing of the Galleries, but in the Louvre he had come under the influence of the Spanish school, and the Spanish places and people now excited his imagination and sympathy. ‘Le Lutrin,’ exhibited in 1863, had no better success than ‘Ex Voto’; it was very badly hung, but the same picture with one figure painted out obtained a medal in 1868. Legros's reputation was confined to a narrow circle, and at the time that ‘Le Lutrin’ was painted he, according to Dalou, was in a state of great poverty, disheartened, ill, living in dread of creditors, although not ‘devoid of that saving quality of humour, which never left him.’
Encouraged by James Abbott McNeill Whistler [q. v. Suppl. II], who heartened him with the hope of finding work in London, Legros left France for England in 1863. Not wholly unknown, he was welcomed with great kindness by Dante Gabriel Rossetti [q. v.] and George Frederick Watts [q. v. Suppl. II] At first he lived by his etching and by teaching. On the recommendation of (Sir) Edward Poynter he was appointed teacher of etching at the South Kensington School of Art, and his success in that post led to his election in 1875 to the Slade professorship of fine art at University College, London. Leighton, Burton, Poynter, and Watts supported his candidature. A few years later he became a naturalised British subject. He remained professor till 1892, and among the many young artists who came under his care were Mr. Henry Tuke, Mr. Thomas Gotch, Charles Furse, William Strang, who was his most faithful disciple, Countess Féodora Gleichen, Miss Hallé, (Sir) Charles Holroyd, and Miss Swainson. Legros encouraged truth of character and severity in the work of his pupils, with a simple technique and a respect for the traditions of the old masters after the manner of the schools of Raphael and the Carracci. He painted before the students, and would draw before them from the life and from the antique. All varieties of art work were practised: sculpture, modelling, decoration, etching, medal-making and even gem-engraving. As Legros had casually picked up the art of etching by watching a comrade in Paris working at a commercial engraving, so he began making medals after studying Pisanello in the British Museum and the Cabinet des Médailles.
Much of Legros's work outside his class-room continued to bear trace of the rebellious romantic spirit of his youth. Such is the characteristic of his etchings from Edgar Allan Poe, the ‘Bonhomme Misère,’ and ‘La Mort du Vagabond.’ In his last years, after he had resigned the professorship, he etched in the early spirit ‘Le Triomphe de la Mort,’ and beautiful idyls of fishermen by willow-lined streams, labourers in the fields, farms in Burgundy, and castles in Spain. In 1897, at the instance of S. Arthur Strong [q. v. Suppl. II], he was commissioned by the Duke of Portland to design fountains for the gardens at Welbeck. These were carried out with the help of Professor Lanteri. In the same year he undertook the decoration for the top of the Bank of England at the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria.
Legros first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1864, and sent paintings or etchings each year till 1874. Subsequently he only exhibited at the Academy in 1881 and 1882, in the last year sending six bronze medals. He was elected fellow of the Society of Painter-Etchers in July 1880, but resigned in 1885. He was re-elected a fellow in April 1895, and made an honorary fellow in Dec. 1910. He was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal Scottish Academy in March 1911. He was also a member of the International Society and of the Society of Twelve.
For many years Legros had been devoted to the work of Alfred Stevens [q.v.] , and his last labour was to serve as the president of the committee of the Stevens Memorial, now at the Tate Gallery. He was present at the opening of the exhibition of Stevens's work held at the Tate Gallery to commemorate the presentation of that memorial on 15 Nov. 1911. He died at his home in Watford on 7 Dec. following, and was buried in Hammersmith cemetery; almost his last words were those of gratitude at the recognition of Stevens, saying ‘Il a été reconnu.’
He married in 1864, the year after he came to England, Frances Rosetta, third daughter of Samuel Hodgson of Kendal. Of their four sons and five daughters two sons and three daughters survived him.
He made several portraits of himself at various periods of his life, both etchings and drawings; one, in gold-point, he did by invitation for the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. In addition to the portrait by Fantin-Latour in ‘Hommage à Delacroix,’ there is an early head of Legros by the same artist, which was in the collection of Mr. Van Wisselingh. The present writer has a profile study in oils and two etchings. A bronze head of Legros by Rodin is in the Manchester City Art Gallery and a terra-cotta head by Dalou in the museum at Dijon.
Many pictures and drawings by Legros besides those mentioned are in public galleries and in important private collections. At the Luxembourg, Paris, are the painting ‘L'Amende Honorable,’ ‘Dead Christ,’ and portrait of Gambetta, with bronzes, medals, and some twenty-two drawings. At Dijon is the ‘Ex Voto,’ his masterpiece. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, are landscapes, ‘The Tinker,’ the study of a head, and the portraits (among others) of Browning, Burne-Jones, and Huxley. At the National Gallery of British Art are ‘Femmes en prière’ and a portrait. In the collection of Rosalind, Countess of Carlisle, are ‘A Christening,’ ‘Barricade,’ ‘Psyche,’ ‘The Poor at Meat,’ two portraits and several drawings and etchings. Thirty-five drawings and etchings are in the print room British Museum. ‘Jacob's Dream’ and twelve drawings after the antique are at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. His work is also represented at Manchester, Liverpool, and Peel Park Museum, Salford. Of Legros's etchings the principal collections are those of the late Mr. T. G. Arthur of Carrick House, Ayr, and Mr. Guy Knowles of 17 Kensington Gore, London; these two collections would form almost a complete set. Mr. F. E. Bliss of 21 Holland Park, W., has some 900 proofs in his possession. Mr. Guy Knowles also possesses the best collection of Legros's sculpture and medals, including the mask of Miss Swainson, two masks for a fountain, and the highly finished little torso, a cast of which is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington. An exhibition of sixty of his paintings and a number of etchings, lithographs, drawings, and bronzes was held, shortly after his death, in the National Gallery of British Art, Millbank.