Jules-Joseph Lefèbvre’s incredible skill at portraying women with both precision and a certain adoration compelled a reviewer at the 1881 Paris Salon to write, “It is sufficient to mention his name in order to immediately evoke the memory and the image of the thousand adorable creatures of which he is the father…Jules Lefèbvre, better than anyone else caresses with a brush both delicate and sure, the undulating contour of the feminine form.”
Born the son of a baker in 1836, Lefèbvre was encouraged from a young age to pursue painting as a career. He was sent to Paris in 1852 and within a year, was accepted to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts. Like most academic painters, Lefèbvre began his career by composing histories and other narratives. He had a successful debut at the 1855 Paris Salon, and in 1861, won first place in the coveted Prix de Rome competition, which awarded him five years of study in Rome and virtually guaranteed career success. During his stay in Rome, Lefèbvre began to acquire a particular interest in portraying the female nude, while continuing to paint narratives that he submitted to the Salon. One of these narratives, Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, was met with harsh criticism by experts. This considerable setback, combined with the death of his parents and sister that same year, sent Lefèbvre into a deep depression. He later emerged from his personal and professional woes with a new view of art and interest in subject matter. He began to paint exclusively in a more realistic style, and in 1868, debuted his Reclining Nude at the Salon to much acclaim. In 1870, Lefèbvre debut his most revered work, Truth, the success of which led to his induction as an officer of the Legion of Honor.
Lefèbvre enjoyed world-recognition for his female portraits for decades. He exhibited 72 portraits at the Paris Salon from 1855 to 1898, and his work was so highly admired that it was considered comparable only to the renowned William Bouguereau. Among those who sat for him were the Imperial Prince Napoléon, and in 1869, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, who purchased a Femme Nue in 1892. In the 1870s, Lefèbvre became noted and sought as an excellent professor, teaching at both Academie Julien and later, the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1898, he was promoted to Commander in the Legion of Honor. He died in 1911.