Lot Essay Rupert Bunny’s Le Rossignol, c.1908, is an important, previously missing key to his engaging series of paintings of women relaxing on balconies in the evening, listening to music. Until now, some understandable confusion has surrounded this painting, which was earlier titled both ‘Le Rossignol’ and ‘A Summer Night’. Moreover, in the 1911 souvenir catalogue to the International Fine Arts Exhibition in Rome, it was even illustrated by the wrong painting, namely Endormies, c.1904. Years later, a Bunny scholar, Mary Eagle, raised the possibility of it being the same work as the closely related painting, A Nocturne of Chopin c.1908 (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) (M.Eagle, The Art of Rupert Bunny, Canberra, 1991, pp.76-77). Part of the problem lies with Bunny himself, who was inclined to change titles not only from French to English and vice versa, but alter the very names themselves. Also, in this particular group of paintings, often referred to as ‘Days and Nights in August’, some are so similar that they have been easily mistaken for each other.
First exhibited as ‘Le Rossignol’ in Paris in 1908, it next appeared as ‘Summer Night’ at Pittsburgh in the USA in 1909, before its 1911 Rome appearance as ‘A Summer Night’. In that same year of 1911, when Bunny visited his home country of Australia for two major exhibitions, The Argus, Melbourne, reported: ‘A third picture now at the Great Exhibition at the Italian capital is “The Nightingale,” which when exhibited at the George Petit Gallery before its voyage to Italy, was hailed by leading French critics as a “Veritable chef d’oeuvre.”’ (The Argus, Melbourne, 20 May 1911, p.8). In Adelaide The Register referred to it as ‘A Summer Night’ (The Register, Adelaide, 31 May 1911, p.8). William Moore, the future pioneer historian of Australian art, noted, ‘While [Bunny] has been holding an exhibition in Melbourne this year, he has been represented at the International Art Exhibition in Rome (where his small canvas, “A Summer Night”, has been described by a leading French critic as “a little masterpiece”) (W. Moore, 'The Remarkable Record of Rupert Bunny', Life, Melbourne, Sept. 1911, p.249).’
Such quoted praise for The Nightingale originated in 1909 with the Paris art critic Henri Chervet: ‘Le Rossignol, où trois femmes écoutent par une belle nuit intensément bleue les trilles de l’harmonieux oiseau, est un petit chef-d’oeuvre de poésie et de vérité. Les accords de la couleur, bleu, blanc et jaune, sont admirablement adaptés à l’ambiance et la simplicité et le naturel des attitudes s’expriment avec une très personnelle élégance’ (H. Chervet, 'Expositions de peintures', La Nouvelle Revue, Paris, 1 Jan. 1909, pp.136-9).
Bunny’s paintings appeal to the senses – the gentle warmth of a summer’s night in the velvety feel of soft, warm air, the textural and visual attraction of beautiful costumes and those who wear them, the sound of music and the play of light on water. All are sensuously present in Le Rossignol, which seems to be one of the earliest of this series. Compared with the large ‘salon’ paintings which followed, its smaller size allows for a greater immediacy, being fresher and more intimate. As a song of praise to beauty, it is centered around his wife Jeanne, whose face is the only one turned to the viewer. This was most likely based on a separate Portrait Study of Jeanne Bunny (Private collection, England) apparently used again for Idleness c.1910 (Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth) the larger, companion piece to Le Rossignol.
We are grateful to David Thomas for this catalogue entry.
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