Eugène Leroy
Year, Birthplace 1910, France
Year, Place of death 2000, France
Eugène Leroy’s life was changed by the chance discovery of a book on Rembrandt when he was 15 years old. This was to remain a source of inspiration for the rest of his life. He attended his first drawing classes and made copies at the Musée des beaux-arts in Lille. In 1931, following three years of illness, he took up studies at the École des beaux-arts, first in Lille and then in Paris, though he soon gave up attending classes in order to dedicate himself totally to painting. The six weeks he spent immersed in the world of painting in Paris convinced him, however, of the impossibility of making a living from his art and led him to abandon his career path. He went on to earn his living teaching for 28 years, as a professor of Latin and Greek, and later French literature, at a Catholic college in Roubaix. In 1940, he turned down the post of head of painting at the college. His study of painters grew as he travelled: Rembrandt, Kasimir Malevich, Giorgione, Hugo van der Goes. During all these years, he painted almost exclusively religious subject matter, with the exception of the seascapes he produced when he stayed at Grand-Fort-Philippe, near the small North Sea port of Gravelines and, later, at Wissant. He developed a technique which he was to maintain for the rest of his life, making it almost impossible to divide his work into periods. Such a division is made even more complex, given the constant presence of nudes and self-portraits as favourite subjects throughout his life. In his oil paintings, the paint is pushed and pulled into thick accumulations which slowly reveal the subject. Leroy’s activity as a painter was circumscribed by his duties as a teacher in his native north of France, and isolation weighed heavily upon him. He had no studio, so he painted in his kitchen. His first individual exhibition took place in 1937 at the Galerie Monsallut in Lille. He had to wait until 1943 for his second individual exhibition, at the Galerie Else Clausen in Paris, for which Gaston Diehl wrote the catalogue preface. In Paris, in 1951, he met the dealer Pierre Loeb, who decided to take him on. He began to build a collection of African sculptures in 1953. In 1954, at the age of 44, his isolation finally ended: the critic Charles Estienne selected him for an exhibition titled Correction d’angles [Correcting Angles], with Sam Francis, Serge Poliakoff and Marcel Pouget, at the Galerie Art Vivant in Paris. His first recognition came two years later, when the Musée des beaux-arts in Tourcoing mounted a retrospective of his work. In the same year, he showed at the Salon de Mai and at the Galerie Creuze, with Eugène Dodeigne, and in 1957 he was awarded the Achille-Émile Othon Friesz prize. The dealer Claude Bernhard visited him frequently and showed his paintings in 1961 and 1963. When he moved to Wasquehal, near Lille, in 1958, everything changed: Eugène Leroy could now paint in better conditions, and in particular, on a larger scale. In 1963 he finally abandoned his career as a teacher to concentrate on painting yet he went through a period of great solitude, as he engaged with his permanent battle with the medium, tirelessly reworking canvases, until his exhibition at the École des beaux-art in Lille in 1977. The catalogue preface to this exhibition was written by François Mathey. From then on, Eugène Leroy was acknowledged and championed by figures such as Jan Hoet and Michael Werner. From 1982 onwards, when he was 72 years old, retrospectives of his work were held around the world, one of them at the Musée d'art moderne de Villeneuve-d’Ascq, near his home in Wasquehal, with a catalogue that included texts by Georg Baselitz and Rudi Fuchs, and another, the following year, at the Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris. The Grand Prix National de Peinture was awarded to this atypical and unclassifiable artist, who never considered himself either abstract or figurative. The wider public discovered him with astonishment. He once said: ‘Ultimately, I don’t make pictures, I make painting’. AC