“Is there a library or museum in Paris that will research a painting/artist for you? This is the painting Pop said he bought off a street artist in Paris in 1934 when he was at the Sorbonne. It’s oil on wood and 27 cm x 22 cm. I’d guess the artist’s name is Plilong or P.L. Long or P. Lilong.” This message went from the owner to his sister, then to his sister’s friend Mary Ann, who sent it to us. It was accompanied by an image of the signature. Could we help with a little research?
The picture itself showed a flat rural landscape under a dull blue sky in which three people (probably men) and two beasts (horses? donkeys? oxen?) are straining to move a heavy load of something brown and red along a dusty white road. The style is Post-Impressionist, hence the sketchiness of the details. At first the picture doesn’t look like much, but then one becomes aware that the artist has successfully conveyed the effort and strain of the men and the animals, the heat of the day, and the dreariness of the surroundings rather effectively for a mere “street artist.”
I squinted at the signature, and tried various combinations on Google. The one that worked best was “P. Lelong.” OK, the third letter may not look much like an “e” but the only references to “Lilong” were to traditional forms of Chinese housing. There was a “Pierre Lelong” (actually there are six) listed on French Wikipedia; the one identified as an artist is described in a terse note: “Pierre Lelong (1908-1984) est un peintre figuratif français, membre du comité du Salon Comparaisons.” (Pierre Lelong was a figurative French painter and member of the committee of the Comparisons Salon.) That was all. But it was a start.
I found some other paintings online, all signed “P. Lelong” (not Pierre or Pierre-Emile, his full name), so I think this is our man. The signatures differ slightly, but the others date from long after the 1930s, and signatures can change over a lifetime. So who was he?
A search of the library catalogue at the University of Toronto turned up a monograph written in 1957* that provided some details about his early life. Born in 1908 in Neuilly, just outside Paris, he lost his mother when he was six and was raised by his grandmother. At 16, he started art classes at the Atelier Julien on the rue du Dragon in Paris, but his studies were interrupted by his military service and then, it seems, by the need to earn a living. He went to work for an insurance company (la Mutualité Agricole), and abandoned all thought of being an artist.
But in 1933, he was doing well enough at his job to have the leisure to take up his brushes again. What our friend’s friend thought was a “street artist” in 1934 seems to have been an insurance agent, moonlighting. By 1935 he was able to rent a studio in Montmartre and to travel during his summer holidays to Spain. (If the date of 1934 is not exact, my friend’s friend’s painting might have depicted Spanish peasants – certainly the flat, hot landscape looks like Spain.)
In 1938, he married Marie-Rose Salvatori from Trinidad. (I wonder how they met.) He was doing well, exhibiting here and there, and travelling quite bit. Then came the war. He became a liaison officer with an English regiment, the Royal Dragoon Guards. So presumably he spoke English.
At Dunkirk, he was captured with other officers and interned at a camp near Dresden. Somehow, he was able to get painting materials. Strangely enough, this was the first time since his adolescence that he was able to concentrate full time on his art. What else was there to do? He painted what he saw – his fellow prisoners – waiting, eating, cooking, washing, waiting, playing cards, reading letters, waiting…
He was transferred to another camp near the Czechoslovakian border, where he worked in a garage and earned money selling paintings. He tried and failed to escape, tried again, and succeeded. It was February 1942.
For a while he settled in Clermont-Ferrand, in occupied France, and worked on his sketches from the camp. With the help of a another former prisoner, Henri Curtil, he produced a series called Une Vie de Camp, published in 1943. Then he and his wife sat out the rest of the war in Trinidad, where he went to work on his technique. He felt he’d never really mastered the art of painting. Methodically, he worked on still lifes, nudes, landscapes, and other genres until he felt satisfied with the result.
After the war, he went to the United States, where his only son, Jean-François, was born in 1946. He returned to Paris the following year, and found a studio at 10, boulevard des Batignolles. By this point, he was a full-time painter; not just a moonlighting insurance agent. He exhibited frequently, and kept busy doing illustrations for books, magazines, and newspapers. He was invited to paint a portrait of the composer Jacques Ibert, which was exhibited at a salon called “Peintres Témoins de leur Temps” (Painters Witnesses of their Times) in 1956. Lelong was interviewed on the radio, written up in the press, the picture of a successful painter. The future was bright.
But at that point, the 1957 account stops. What happened next? I found brief mentions of him in books about the “School of Paris” and so forth, but no indication of how or where he died (and only the year, not the day).
The next thing I found was a four-page exhibition brochure from 1978 on eBay. I bought it for a few Euros, because I liked the image of couples dancing on a sun-dappled square in front of a band, presumably on Bastille Day. It’s a light-filled, light-hearted, summery painting. Inside the brochure are three other images reproduced in black and white – boats, a beach, and a sunny interior with a nude. After the chilly gloom of the prisoner-of-war camp, Lelong seems to have focused on cheery scenes, full of warmth and colour. Perhaps his time in Trinidad was an influence there. He would have been 70 at the time of the exhibition.
But there the trail seemed to go cold. I tried a few genealogical websites. Nothing. I searched for any mentions of his son, Jean-Francois and his wife, Marie-Rose. Nothing. Until one day I found a mention of a limited-edition book about Lelong published in 1987, that is, a few years after his death.** Thanks to the wonders of interlibrary loan, I was able to borrow a copy from a library in Ottawa.
Along with an extended list of his many successes, including a retrospective exhibition in Nice of 150 works, I found the end of the story. Apparently, Lelong continued to paint as long as he could, working from an atelier at 74, rue des Plantes in the 14th. He vigorously defended the art of figurative paintings against the dominant abstract artists of the day. But his health started to fail in 1981, when he was 73, and he spent more and more time in hospital (it is not clear what the illness was). He died in Paris on 29 June 1984. And about six months later, his son, who was working in Morocco, died in a car accident there. I wonder what happened to his wife, Marie-Rose. Did she stay in Paris? Did she ever go back to Trinidad?
Lelong’s paintings turn up now and then in sales and on eBay, and so do copies of Une Vie de Camp. He painted mid-20th-century life in the style of the Impressionists – with cars instead of carriages, young women in short skirts instead of long gowns, motorboats instead of rowboats, electric lights instead of gaslight. Some images are reduced to geometrical shapes, but never completely abstracted. I like them. He came a long way from that initial 1930s painting, and as the research unfolded, I felt I had travelled at least part of the route with him. Our friend Mary Ann had sent us on an intriguing journey. Now to find an original we can afford…
Text by Philippa Campsie. Images by Pierre-Emile Lelong.
* Ivan Bettex, Pierre-Emile Lelong, Geneva: Les cahiers d’art-documents, no. 53, 1957.
** Bertrand Duplessis, Pierre Lelong, ou la recontre d’un homme avec l’univers, Paris: Editions SMPMD, 1987.