The Little Dancer
Oil on canvas; signed
56.25 x 45.25 inches
Purchased in 1923 and taken to Paris by either Pierre Lebaudy (1865-1929) or his brother Paul Lebaudy (1858-1937), and thence by descent.
Royal Academy, 1923, no. 15
Robin Gibson wrote in the catalogue of the 1985 Philpot exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery that ‘in the absence of lost works such as the exquisite The Little Dancer of 1923, The Entrance to the Tagada of 1931 or Negro as Harlequin of 1937, a really complete assessment [of Philpot’s work] may not yet be possible’. The other two paintings have since been rediscovered (The Entrance to the Tagada setting a record price at auction for the artist in 1986), leaving The Little Dancer as the only major work by Philpot to have remained untraced until now.
Daisy Philpot records, in her handwritten catalogue of her brother’s paintings, that the painting was executed at 33 Tite Street, Chelsea; she is a particularly reliable source in this instance, as she sat for the figure of the mother (along with her niece). Philpot had leased a studio in Tite Street since 1910, and at the end of the First World War transferred to no. 33, which had been built as a block of studios in 1880-1. There he had as a neighbour John Singer Sargent, who since 1886 had used a studio which had been occupied by Whistler in 1881-4 (D Cox, The Street of Wonderful Possibilities, 2015). There are reminiscences of both in this painting, as there are of Manet, Velázquez and Sargent, all of whom Philpot admired, and were listed as influences in PG Konody’s analysis of Philpot’s work, published September 1923. Konody went on to observe that ‘Philpot’s style is derived from the old masters; his vision is modern. His worship of all that is best in tradition never makes him lose touch with life.... Lately he has obtained particularly happy results from the use of thin paint over heavy white priming, a method which he used... certainly for the charming “Little Dancer” at this year’s Royal Academy’.
1923 was a particularly opportune moment for an assessment of Philpot’s career. He had established a significant reputation in his twenties with Manuelito of 1909 (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam) and La Zarzarrossa of 1910-11 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). Although his career had been interrupted by the First World War, 1923 marked a new peak, with a one-man exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery following his election to the Royal Academy as the youngest serving Academician. According to Daisy Philpot’s notes, at or after the Royal Academy exhibition, the painting was ‘Purchased by ?’ and then ‘Exhibited at the Winter Exhibition [of Paintings & Drawings by Contemporary British Artists] of the Grosvenor Gallery 51A New Bond St 1923’. Intended for that exhibition, along with The Repose on the Flight into Egypt now in Tate, it was replaced as no. 15 in the catalogue by L’Après-Midi Tunisien.
Daisy Philpot also records that the painting was ‘believed to have been sent to France after purchase’. This has proved to be correct, as the painting has re- emerged from the collection of the Lebaudy family of Paris, having either been acquired by Pierre Lebaudy (1865-1929) for his house on the site of what is now 15 Avenue Foch, or by his brother Paul Lebaudy (1858-1937), who built a house on the corner of the Rue François Ier and of 40 Avenue Georges V.
The Lebaudy brothers, Paul and Pierre, were of the wealthy family that owned a sugar refinery in Moisson, France. They also built semi-rigid airships there, which they sold to the military. Their cousin Jacques was interesting: he attempted, with 400 hired soldiers and machine guns, to establish a new nation in Morocco in 1903, that he called ‘The Empire of the Sahara’; unsuccessful, he retired to the Savoy in London, where the orchestra would play his national anthem whilst he dined beneath an imperial purple canopy. After moving to New York he was committed to an asylum by his wife, and on his release tried several times to kill her – but she got in first, killing him in 1919. A grand jury refused to indict her.