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Horrifying image in 19th century painting of people being swept over Niagara Falls – featured in upcoming Paris auction

March 4, 2018

Lot 161. François-Auguste Biard Lyon, 1799 – Fontainebleau, 1882
“Two Indians Swept Away in Niagara Falls”
Oil on panel: 8.5 x 13 inches.
Signed: Biard, lower left.
Estimate: € 4,000-6,000.
Click on image to enlarge.

Artists flocked to Niagara Falls in the 19th century creating a legacy of images depicting the site’s raw natural power and beauty.   The falls were painted from numerous vantages: up close; at great distance; and even beneath some of the cascades.  Edward Hicks’ depiction is characterized by a dignified folksiness while Fredric Edwin Church created an iconic image that conveys all of the might and thunder with none of the sound.  Surfacing at Artcurial’s March 21, 2018 auction of Old Master and 19th Century Paintings and Drawings in Paris is a small panel painting (perhaps from the early 1860s) by the peripatetic 19th century French painter François-Auguste Biard that is strikingly unusual; it shows two Native Americans being swept over the edge into the falls.

Biard was born in Lyons in 1799 and studied in that town’s academy.  He was in Paris by 1824 and was met with early success; his travels began in 1827 and took him from Spain to Egypt.  His career got a major bump from Louis Philippe d’Orléans who was crowned King of the French in 1830.  In 1833 the king purchased two paintings Biard exhibited at the Salon that year.   The 1830s saw continued royal acquisitions, awards at the Salons, and finally in 1838 Biard received the Knight of the National Order of the Legion of Honor.  In 1839 and 1840, the artist participated in an expedition to the Arctic, which continued to accrue benefits for the next decade.

Biard is grouped by some as kindred spirit with the German Romanticists and the American Hudson River School for his verisimilitude, graphic depictions of wilderness and nature, and the piquancy of his genre painting. Some of his paintings are of a scale that’s almost cinematic and designed to dazzle, delight, enthrall and terrify the viewer.


François-Auguste Biard (1799–1882)
“The Duke of Orleans Riding Down the Great Rapid of Eijanpaikka at the Muonio River, Lapland, August 1795” (1840)
Oil on canvas: 131 × 163 cm
Château de Versailles, Versailles, France.

Five years ago, the Dallas Museum of Art purchased “Seasickness on an English Corvette,” which shows a ship listing to one side and crowded with passengers.  A woman reading in the center seems oblivious to her surroundings and fellow travelers, many of whom are seasick (including the companion immediately to her right).

François–Auguste Biard (French, 1798 – 1882)
“Seasickness on an English Corvette” (1857)
Oil on canvas: 38 5/8 x 51 9/16 in.
Dallas Museum of Art, gift of J.E.R. Chilton
Image courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

A late-career painting came to auction in June 2017 at Sotheby’s in Paris. It’s also a maritime scene, but the passengers are in even greater distress; in the painting’s foreground we see them stranded on an ice floe grouped around a fire for warmth.  Their damaged and sinking ship is in the painting’s middle, and several passengers can be seen frantically signaling to another ship upper middle right.  The painting was estimated at € 20,000-30,000 and sold for € 37,500 (inclusive of the buyer’s premium).

Lot 180. François-Auguste Biard
“Shipwreck Victims on Ice floe”
Signed and dated lower right Biard 1876 – 1877
Oil on canvas: 49 by 77 3/8 in.
Estimate: € 20,000-30,000. This lot sold for € 37,500.
Click on image to enlarge.

The painting at Artcurial also came later in the artist’s career, though some fifteen years earlier than the shipwreck (above).  It was done following a two year stint in Brazil to which Biard traveled from Paris in 1858.  He was very popular with the country’s upper echelon, including the emperor, Dom Pedro II. His time there resulted in the 680-page book, published in 1862, Two Years in Brazil that featured 180 engravings based on his original work (this period of Biard’s life is the subject of the book Brazil Through French Eyes: A Nineteenth-Century Artist in the Tropics). He then went to North America and produced paintings on a variety of subjects from train travel to polar bear hunting and slavery.

The painting on offer in Paris is diminutive when compared with the other paintings shown above and doesn’t have the high finish normally associated with Biard’s work.  What has yet to be determined: [1] does this depict an actual event? [2] if this depicts an actual event, is this something the artist was told about or actually witnessed? [3] if yes to the latter, is it a contemporaneous account painted en plein air? and, [4] is this a sketch for a more highly finished version or the only version he created?

There are several other paintings in the sale of worthy of attention such as Nicolas Tournier’s painting “Midas with donkey’s ears,” Michel Anguier’s Farnese Hercules-like bronze Agitated Neptunean intriguing French Caravaggesque picture from 1630 depicting Three swordsmen sitting at a table, and several others, but it’s the Biard that I can’t get out of my mind.


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