At the age of seventeen, Theodule Ribot left home and moved to Paris, looking for work to support his family. In Paris he found employment at the atelier of Auguste-Barthelemy Glaize (1807-1893), where he earned his pay by perfecting architectural backgrounds for his teacher. It is here that Ribot was first exposed to the academic study of the nude.
Relying on his studies of seventeenth century Spanish paintings, Ribot began, at the age of twenty-seven, creating his own work. His painting was executed in varying shades of white, gray, and black, using themes readily available to him. Gabriel Weisberg, Curator of the Cleveland Museum of Art writes that Ribot’s painted faces and hands reveal “the touch of a master interested in expressing character and capable of revealing qualities through a study of gesture”.
On the subject of lighting, Weisberg writes: “the canvases Ribot completed in the late 1850s were painted by lamplight in the evenings at his home and were drawn from his own environment. These works emphasize dark and light tonalities – aspects of his style imposed by inadequate lighting conditions – but a style which he continued to perfect throughout his career.”
This painting of the artist’s sister is a fine example of Ribot’s use of darker tones in his work. Here, the lamplight illuminates only her face and left hand. Each is painted carefully, her facial features conveying a sense of deep contemplation and focus. This particular painting is a small study for what would have inevitably become a much larger, more highly detailed work. Because it is a study, however, the artist has allowed himself to play with his brushstrokes, depicting the subject with a looser hand then he might have used in the finished work. The artist has applied the skin-tone colour over a black underpainting, so the face appears to float ominously, as if it has been carved out of the darkness.
Ribot’s skill was recognized at the Paris Salons in 1864 and 1865 when he was awarded medals for his paintings. He was also inducted into the Legion d’honneur. In 1884, Ribot received a medal of honour inscribed with A Theodule Ribot: le peintre independent, bestowed on him by friends and colleagues (including Fantin-Latour, Bastien-Lepage, Jean-Charles Cazin and Claude Monet) for his artistic contribution.