See what I just did there?

This will be my last post on the odd historical link between local painter Sophie Pemberton and the notorious King of the Latin Quarter, Bibi la Purée. I thought I had said everything I had to say last week. But the more I reflect on what I wrote, the more I think my comparative analysis of her painting was rather shoddy, even by blog standards.


True, I didn’t make any of it up. What I wrote reflects the facts, insofar as I know them. But I was overly selective in presenting the material, ignoring anything that might have complicated my argument.

One of the chief complications is that we have solid evidence that Sophie Pemberton saw Bibi la Purée the same way everyone else did: “everyone knew him; free drinks were given him; no one was happier than he” she wrote (under her married name, “Mrs. Beanlands”). She even drew a version of the smiling Bibi with the umbrella theme, which appeared as the frontispiece in the same issue of “Westward Ho!” magazine, and which I have reproduced here.

So why she chose to paint him as an unhappy man is even more of a mystery than I first thought. Or maybe not. Perhaps it was her way of recuperating him for the upper class milieu she inhabited, whose deeply conservative, provincial nature would probably have been able to tolerate the notion of a unhappy, dissolute bohemian, but might have been more scandalized by a happy carefree one, thumbing his nose at everything they valued. But if that’s the case, why did she present the carefree version in her magazine article?

So, I’m calling “mystery” on this one. I can’t explain it, and I’m not going to try anymore.

On a bit of a tangent, I want to thank the cultural resource organizations whose efforts I’ve made use of in the past 3 posts, which included the University of Victoria, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, the California Digital Library, the University of Michigan, and of course, the Internet Archive. I’m old enough to remember when doing this much research would have taken days, not minutes, most of which would have been spent trying to get access to the various documents I’ve referred to here, in many cases unsuccessfully. We tend to take this kind of thing for granted now, and I often think too much so.

Pemberton vs. Picasso, part 2


In last week’s post I talked about the highly anomalous portrait of Bibi la Purée painted by Victoria painter Sophie Pemberton back in 1900 or thereabouts. It was an anomaly for a couple of reasons. I’ve already mentioned one: the high society types that graced Pemberton’s other portraits wouldn’t have wanted Bibi la Purée in the same room with them.

But it’s anomalous for another reason; one I want to spend some time on this week. It doesn’t just stand out in Pemberton’s work, it stands out among all the other depictions of Bibi la Purée I’ve seen. It stands out because it’s the only one that depicts him as a human being, rather than as type, that being the disreputable bohemian thumbing his nose at bourgeois convention.

Bohemia was very much of the moment in the latter half of the 19th century. Thanks to Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème and the Puccini opera it inspired, the whole concept of bohemia (the romantic, outsider kind) came to the attention of fashionable society. And when a work of fiction really captures the public imagination, it tends to colour the popular perception of the world.


It was to this tendency to fictionalize reality Bibi la Purée owed whatever fame he possessed. He came to be seen as an embodiment of “a life free from all conventionalities … untrammeled by public censure or the petty views of prudish or narrow minds.” There is no question he played it up. Maybe he exaggerated his eccentricity for his public; maybe he really was that eccentric. We’ll never know, since the “real” Bibi la Purée is inaccessible except through various one-sided representations of him.

But whatever the truth, it came to pass that the bona fide eccentric, umbrella thief and former friend of Verlaine, eventually gained wider notoriety as a “character,” a real-life “bohemian” who could be hauled onstage to add a bit of local colour to the to a memoir, travelogue, or painting. A case in point being his one-sentence walk-on in Victor Plarr’s description of Ernest Dowson’s last days, the sole point of which is to highlight the depths to which the poet had sunk, Bibi la Purée being by that time his “chief admiration and associate.”

Visual representations of Bibi la Purée were for the most part equally superficial, a case in point being the illustration that leads off this post, showing him swaggering along in his funny clothes, a ratty feather in his outsized hat, leaning on an umbrella, no doubt not his own. Or a contemporary postcard, a photograph this time, showing him with an umbrella tucked under one arm, and a bag of … something … held in the other.


Picasso’s portrait largely continues the popular tradition, it seems to me. True, it does without the umbrella, and under Picasso’s rough post-impressionist handling Bibi’s mask-like, leering mug becomes less a symbol of bohemian triumph than one of the depredations of modern urban life at the margins. But it’s still a picture of a symbol.

I’m not going to say that Pemberton’s portrait is the “real” Bibi la Purée. But in presenting him not as a bohemian, but simply as an unhappy man, she causes me to reflect that behind the romantic curtain of Murger and Puccini lay an altogether more painful reality. That no one really ever sets out to be a “character” in the sense Bibi la Purée was one; no one aspires to have one’s crowning achievement in life be stealing umbrellas. His life may have had its comic elements, but it was fundamentally a tragedy, not a triumph.


Bibi la Purée died of tuberculosis at the age of 56. Pemberton wrote “I finished my portrait. It was hung on the line in the salon and was often surrounded by the students,
who knew Bibi. I never saw him again. He died soon afterwards – alone and in misery. But his memory will long live in the Latin Quartier and let us hope that an angel has pressed down the scale for his gentle and unknown deeds.”

Pemberton vs. Picasso

Pop quiz for all you aficionados of Vancouver Island art history: what do Sophie Pemberton and Pablo Picasso have in common?


OK, they were both painters, and they both lived in Paris in the very early years of the 20th century (Pemberton arrived before Picasso; he stayed on quite a bit longer than she did). But that only gets you part marks. More interestingly, they both painted portraits of the same guy, known around the Latin Quarter as Bibi la Purée. And for my money, she did it better.

Of course, those who aren’t Vancouver Island art history buffs might be asking at this point, “Sophie who?” And more than a few might also be asking, “Bibi who?”

Let’s start with Sophie Pemberton. Born in Victoria BC in 1869, she had a couple of big advantages for someone wanting to be a painter; her family was affluent and socially well connected, and they were willing to finance years of study abroad, notably in England (South Kensington) and later in Paris at the Académie Julian. She also had a couple of disadvantages: women weren’t exactly encouraged to have careers in the 19th century, and she periodically suffered from prolonged bouts of ill-health.

Still, despite whatever challenges she faced, by the time she was 30 she had some measure of success, becoming the first woman to win the Prix Julian for portraiture, and her work had been included in a number of important exhibitions, including the Royal Academy in London, and the Paris Salon of 1900. By 1906, she was an associate member of the Royal Canadian Academy.

Bibi la Purée was the nickname of André-Joseph Salis, who lived in Paris in the last half of the 19th century (born 1847 and died in 1903, according to Wikipedia). He has been described as one of the more footnotey-er footnotes to cultural history, and shows up in various accounts of the period as a living embodiment of the romantic impoverished bohemian, something out of the pages of Murger. He appears to have been chiefly known for helping the poet Paul Verlaine stagger home after drinking too much, and for obsessively stealing umbrellas. He had walk-on parts in a number of contemporary accounts of the Latin Quarter, sometimes even a whole chapter, and was enough of a celebrity that he, or his persona, was the central character in a play and a couple of films many years after his death.

So one can see why the young Picasso would want to rope Bibi into the cast of down-and-outers that inhabit his Blue Period. But the connection between Sophie Pemberton and Bibi la Purée is way more puzzling. Because although she exhibited considerable independence for a woman of her era, she never strayed very far from her social class. Certainly her other works betray no indication of a fascination with the seedy underbelly of modern life. In fact, looking at the works that hang in the Spencer wing of the AGGV, the word “genteel” seems to sum up her oeuvre pretty well. She favoured genre scenes: a dreamy young woman sitting in a field, or two young women reading by the fire, that sort of thing. Most of her portraits are of family members, or various respectable society types, like the former Lieutenant-Governor of BC.

So given the wide disparity in their respective situations, how did she come to paint a portrait of the notorious “King of the Latin Quarter”? How did their paths even cross?

As it happens, we know the answer, sort of. Sophie Pemberton wrote short article about Bibi la Purée, published in Westward Ho! magazine in 1907, and thoughtfully included as an appendix to Nicholas Tuele’s excellent 1980 Masters’ thesis, “Sophie Theresa Pemberton: Her Life and Art,” (from which, honesty compels me to note, I have derived many of the facts included here). When he wasn’t cadging free drinks down at the Café Procope, Bibi moonlighted as an artists model, and Sophie met him posing for an evening class at Whistler’s atelier, which she described as the “dernier cri among the Parisian art students.” So we know where and how they met, but we don’t really know why, of all the subjects available to her, she decided to paint him. She says only, “I asked him to pose and next day he appeared at my studio and I decided to paint him for my salon.” From her description of that first meeting, it is likely that she was simply struck by his presence: “while his clothes spoke of misery his whole bearing had an indescribable alertness and bonhomie.” But I’m speculating, I’ll admit.

The portrait that resulted was one of her best paintings, and certainly the best I have seen of Bibi la Purée, though he was painted by other, better painters; not only Picasso but Steinlen and Jacques Villon. Why I think her portrait was the best will have to wait until I get around to writing part two.