The son of a bargee, in 1895 Camille Bombois was placed as a farm boy in Migennes, near Laroche. By the time he was 17 it appears that he had began to draw rustic scenes. Being prodigiously strong, it was also at this time that he became a local champion wrestler. From 1907 he worked as an itinerant road mender, circus strongman and a porter. He married in 1908 and moved to Paris, where he worked as a labourer on the construction of the Métro subway. He then changed to nightwork at a newspaper printing works, handling the enormous rolls of paper used in the rotary presses. This allowed him the time he needed to paint during the day. In 1914 he was called into service for the duration of the war, but by 1922 he was exhibiting some of his paintings at the outdoor 'Foire aux croûtes' in Montmartre. These were noticed and written about by the poet and journalist Noël Bureau in Rhythm and Synthesis ( Rythme et Synthèse). In 1924 he was discovered by Wilhelm Uhde, the critic and dealer, who in 1927 bought most of his paintings to exhibit. Bombois settled in a large house in the suburbs and started work as a market gardener, dividing his time between growing vegetables and painting. He began to draw on the memories of the first half of his life for inspiration in his role as a painter.
His entire collection of work, whose themes are all intertwined, can only be analysed by grouping the themes according to when those events occurred in his life, rather than by the chronological order in which they were painted. He did not like school, and its only representation is that of his mother holding his hand on the return home along the shady lanes. His childhood on a barge travelling along the peaceful canals and rivers inspired the most tranquil of his pictures when he painted fishermen sitting patiently on the river banks, curtains of trees reflecting bluey-green on the surface of the water, a country house glimpsed through the foliage, evoking the soft rustling sound as the countryside slips slowly by. When his work is considered as a whole, it is strikingly noticeable how the paintings relating to the memories and countryside of his childhood contrast strongly with those of themes in adulthood, both in the quality of the painting and particularly in the distinct poetic sensitivity that they display, reminiscent of the work of Henri Rousseau. He had particularly happy memories of the time he spent in the circus, and enjoyed evoking it in his pictures. He was dazzled by the garish costumes, the harsh lights, the clashing colours. Little appears of his days working underground and hauling newsprint. The way he painted his landscapes, his childhood friends and the travelling entertainers he met, shows that he had a sense of space and depth, which is quite rare in a naive painter. The one theme that seemed to obsess him throughout his life, which he painted again and again, was women. Whether through disinterest or through irrelevance to his composition he painted them without hands or with badly-formed hands; without faces, or merely ill-defined ones, concentrating instead on their voluptuous flesh. He liked to paint well-developed women whose charms he exaggerated exuberantly in his pictures.
He took part in collective exhibitions after 1927, when Wilhelm Uhde exhibited his work under the title Painters of the Sacré Cœur ( Peintres du Sacré Cœur), at the Galerie des Quatre-Chemins, with Rousseau, Vivin and Séraphine. This was followed by Modern Primitive Artists ( Primitifs modernes) at the Galerie Georges Bernheim, Paris, in 1932; in 1937 Andri-Farcy invited him to take part in an historic exhibition Popular Masters of Reality ( Maîtres populaires de la réalité); he appeared in Documenta 1 in Kassel. In 1964 he took part in The World of the Naive Artists ( Le Monde des Naïfs) at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris and in the mid-1960s his works were exhibited in America, several being purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His first solo exhibition was in 1944 at the Galerie O. Pétridès in Paris.
After his death in 1970, he featured in many international exhibitions of primitive art, including Three Self-taught Naive Painters from the 1930s ( Trois peintres autodidactes, dits naïfs, des années 30) with Bauchant and Rimbert, at the art museum in Grenoble in 1980; in 1982, The Folk Art Tradition in New York; 1987, Folk Art of This Century in New York; 1992, Naive Visions in New York; 1993, The 'Outsider' Question in New York; 2003, From Rousseau to Ligabue. Naive? at the Palazzo Bricherasio, Turin. Solo exhibitions of his work were held in 1972 and 1978 in New York, and in 1981 in Paris.
Museum and Gallery Holdings
Geneva (Petit Palais): Vincennes Wood (1928)
New York (MoMA)
Paris (MNAM-CCI): Circus Athlete (c. 1930); Chablis Bridge