Commissioned by American railroad and shipping magnates, the Vanderbilts, this remarkable work by Jehan Georges Vibert is a tour-de-force of watercolor painting. An important genre painter and talented watercolorist of his era, Vibert was particularly popular amongst wealthy American fine art collectors, including John Jacob Astor, James H. Stebbins, Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, and William H. Vanderbilt, by whom this monumental work was commissioned.
When displayed one atop another, these delightful works created a humorous narrative of a group of roofers surreptitiously peeping on a woman’s bath below. The luxuriously detailed painting displays the contemporary fervor for all things Oriental, mixing Asian influences with Western motifs to project a scene that is simultaneously familiar and exotic. Indeed, the combination of Oriental, Asian and Western elements is reflective of the Vanderbilt home itself, as the design scheme of the family’s New York mansion boasted a plethora of fashionable design motifs, including a Renaissance-inspired dining room, a Japanese sitting room, and Turkish rugs in nearly every room.
Like the Vanderbilt home, this scene delightfully combines different cultural elements, including Classical columns with Turkish architectural arches, contemporary Western-style dress with Japanese geta and silk kimonos. Edward Strahan, a friend of the family’s who viewed the painting in the Vanderbilt home, remarked that the women were “splashing about or taking refreshments, in a luxuriously decorated hummums fit for the Arabian Nights.” Undeniably, with his incredible attention to detail, Vibert has crafted a clever narrative in a sumptuous style that still resonates to this day.
Though equally celebrated for his works in oil, Vibert is most remembered today for his incredible accomplishments in watercolor. Born in Paris in 1840, he entered the École des Beaux-Arts at the age of 16, where he studied for six years under the tutelage of popular history painter François-Edouard Picot. He made his Salon debut in 1863, and was awarded medals for his works in 1864, 1867, and 1868. It was in 1867 that he turned to genre painting and established himself as one of the leading masters of the period. Vibert joined fellow genre painters in 1868 to form the Cinq du Corps Législatif, which, a decade later, would become known as the Société d’Aquarellistes Français (Society of French Watercolorists). The popularity of Vibert’s work spread beyond the borders of France and Europe into America, where his pieces fetched high prices and he won numerous special commissions from affluent American families, including the Vanderbilts.