Boutet de Monvel was a turn-of-the-century French painter and illustrator who left a magical, indelible mark on children's literature in England and in America. Boutet de Monvel's family name is also familiar today because of the work of his son, Bernard Boutet de Monvel (1881–1949), a 20th-century painter who followed in his father's path as a painter and society portraitist, gaining a substantial reputation both in France and the United States. Not much recollection survives, however, of the Maurice Boutet de Monvel who was an accomplished Salon painter and creator of superb portraits in the era in France framed between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I. La Dame Blanche is the work of that extraordinary artist.
Maurice Boutet de Monvel was born in Orleans, France, in 1850, to a family rooted for generations in the arts. His forebears and relatives included actors at the Comédie Française, opera singers, and publishers. In 1870 he began the study of painting in Paris with Alexandre Cabanel, but left soon thereafter to volunteer for service in the Franco-Prussian War. Afterward he continued his education with Jules Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger. His decision to study with the daring colorist, Charles-Émile Carolus-Duran, in 1875 represented a move away from conservative academic practice. The young man established his own studio in Paris and exhibited at the Salon de Champs Elysées, winning a bronze medal in 1878 and a silver medal in 1880. He traveled to Algeria in 1876, married, began a family, and, until 1884, painted a varied, but standard bill-of-fare, including landscapes, mythological subjects, and society portraits. In 1880 he was offered an opportunity to supplement his artist's income with work as a magazine illustrator, contributing a series of ink drawings to a history of France that appeared in the first issues of a new French magazine for children, Saint Nicholas: Journal Illustré pour Garçons et Filles, modeled after the American prototype. This first foray into children's illustration was a great success and generated other commissions. In 1882, Boutet de Monvel set out on his own, illustrating a volume of traditional French children's songs for the publishing firm owned by his maternal relations. Veilles Chansons et Rondes pour les Petits Enfants was followed in 1884 by Chansons de France pour les Petits Français. The artist developed a specialty as a painter of portraits of children (and sometimes their mothers). In 1885, after painting Anatole France's children, Boutet de Monvel collaborated with the beloved French author on Nos Enfants (Our Children), an illustrated text about French children that was published in 1887.
Boutet de Monvel's success as an illustrator was well timed, because in 1885 his Salon picture, L'Apothéose, created such a political furor because of its obvious anti-republican sentiment that it was removed from the exhibition. As a gesture of support, during the brouhaha that ensued, he was invited to join the French Water Color Society (Société des Aquarellistes), although he had as yet barely worked in that medium. In the aftermath of this affair, Maurice Boutet de Monvel chose to devote himself to his career as an illustrator, developing a dazzling proficiency as a watercolorist. His experience in the Franco-Prussian war left him with lifelong physical problems that resulted in an early demise at the age of 62. More than the physical scars, however, the war left an emotional residue. Drawings survive from 1878 indicating that Boutet de Monvel planned a series of images related to the horror of war. The anger is transparent in the controversial salon picture of 1885. Thereafter, though, there is a pattern in Boutet's further career that is perfectly consistent. Intensely patriotic and committed to traditional religious and social values, he positioned himself as an interpreter of French culture to a new generation of parents and children, illustrating French songs, the fables of La Fontaine, a book of etiquette and manners for young people, and, the Catholic savior of France, St. Joan of Arc. Though miscreant children tumble around some of his pages, the devilment is contained and set to good didactic purpose. The world he created as an artist recognized waywardness, but in a controlled environment, and promised the sweet triumph of benevolent authority based on stable, inherited patterns.
Boutet de Monvel never entirely gave up oil painting, continuing to work in that medium for portraits and religious subjects. In 1890 he followed his teacher, Carolus-Duran, when the latter broke away from the conservative Salon de Champs Elysées to exhibit at the Salon de Champs de Mars with Puvis de Chavannes and Ernest Meissonier. From 1894 to 1896 Boutet de Monvel worked on a series of watercolor illustrations for a life of Joan of Arc. It was a great success and was published both in America and in England, gaining for him an international following as an illustrator, including commissions for Century Magazine in America. Through the good offices of Robert Underwood Johnson, an editor at the magazine, Boutet's work was exhibited in America in 1899. The artist visited here and traveled to New York, Chicago, and Boston, undertaking portrait commissions. He also attracted the attention of Senator William A Clark of Montana, a copper-mining millionaire, who commissioned six panels depicting the life of Joan of Arc for his New York City residence. These panels, resplendent in jewel tones of oil paint and gold leaf, were created from 1905 and 1911 and given, in 1926, to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.