Jehan Georges Vibert
1840-1902 | French
The Peeping Roofers and The Woman’s Bath
Watercolor and gouache on paper
Each signed “J.G. Vibert” and stamped with the mark of the Société d’Aquarellistes Français (lower left and lower right)
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 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.
A plaque on the gilt frame is inscribed with a poem pertaining to the painting which reads:
"Like a Monk under his hoodUnder the roof of this buildingA secret is hiding from the crowd.“Is it a haram? Is it a convent?”
When the door slightly cracks open
Sometimes for a fleeting moment
The whisper of the flowing water
Is all that is carried upon the wind.
The pigeons and swallows
Which live in the turrets
Never spoke of its secrets.
If I revel it in painting
It is because in repairing the roof
One of the roofers has been indiscreet.
Painted in 1880
Frame: 61" high x 51 1/4" wide
The Peeping Roofers: 13" high x 21 1/2" wide
The Woman's Bath: 20 1/4" high x 29 3/4" wide
William H. Vanderbilt, New York
George Washington Vanderbilt II, New York
Brigadier General Cornelius Vanderbilt, New York
Collection of Vincent Fourcade
Haggin Museum, Stockton, CA
Brookyln Museum, New York
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
The Art Treasures of America, 1879, E. Strahan