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Th?odule-Augustin Ribot, 1823-1891

Conversation Piece: Three Heads (Gossip)

Description:Read An Essay On This Drawing

Théodule-Augustin Ribot had little formal fine-art training, but, as a young man, he found employment in a number of art-related Welds. By gilding mirrors, coloring lithographs for popular novels, decorating window shades, and painting trade signs, Ribot acquired the basic elements of drawing and painting, which he then practiced at home. Ribot's biographer, Louis de Fourcaud, described the artist's growth: "His wife, his sons, all the objects that he finds before him attract him. . . . Long evenings are spent sketching hands in all their possible movements. Because of this persistence, he acquires an incredible skill as a draftsman. Then, on Sunday and throughout the week, during his moments of leisure, he paints some small scenes . . . depicting his infant son, or his wife, or even a friend."1

The rough, rustic style that Ribot eventually developed was perfectly suited to the subject matter he favored. As a member of the realist movement, Ribot depicted the poor in a manner that did not disguise the reality of their circumstances. Using individuals from his own circle of family and friends as models, Ribot produced small paintings based on themes from the daily life of the Parisian working class, particularly the activities of musicians, cooks, servant girls, and tradesmen.

Ribot's familiarity with the people and the life he portrayed in his works may explain the sense of intimacy and directness that characterizes his paintings. That same sense of immediacy is evident in Conversation Piece: Three Heads. The cropped composition, close viewpoint, and the presence of the figure on the right who looks outward to address the viewer evokes a feeling of closeness and warmth. This sensation is emphasized further by the lighting of the scene. Ribot's modulation of the wash medium is masterly, allowing him to produce a full range of light effects from dark shadow through halftones to full light. Thus, while the figure on the left is seen from behind and in a heavy shadow, a warm light casts a glow on the faces of the figure on the right and the young girl in the background. Finally, the thick, rough black line that outlines the figures' forms grants the scene a fundamental earthiness appropriate to the subjects' low social status.

Although the work is entitled Conversation Piece, it may actually depict street singers or musicians, a subject that Ribot treated many times in his career. For example, the basic arrangement of the heads and the device of one figure looking at the viewer in Conversation Piece are similar to the composition of Ribot's The Singers (1863-68, The Cleveland Museum of Art). That the figures in Conversation Piece may be musicians is further suggested by the action of the young girl in the background, who appears to be reading a sheet of music. Susan E. Ross

1. L. de Fourcaud, Théophile Ribot, sa vie et ses oeuvres (Paris, 1885), 6.

Medium: black ink wash on slightly textured, moderately thick, beige wove paper
Dimensions: height: 15.3 cm, width: 19.4 cm.
Date: 1872
Category: portrait
Subject: man
Inscriptions and Markings: "44" and "Ribot" in graphite, above and to the left of center, verso; "T. Ribot/1872" in black ink, upper left
Exhibition History: A Discerning Eye: Nineteenth-century Drawings and Watercolors. Academy of the Arts, Easton, MD, 1998-99
Provenance: Cyrus J. Lawrence (1886-1910), New York.; Cyrus J. Lawrence Sale, American Art Association, New York, January 21-22, 1910, no. 5 [$105]; Henry Walters (1848-1931), Baltimore, 1910, by purchase.
Collection: The Walters Art Museum
Credit Line: Acquired by Henry Walters, 1910
Object Number: WAM 37.2429