Henri Gervex was a pupil of Alexandre Cabanel and Eugène Fromentin.
Though he painted portraits of Prince Napoleon and Dr Péan (for the St Louis Hospital), male portraits did not make up a very significant part of his work, which can be divided into two very clear periods. During the first, before 1877, he treated mythological subjects of a rather risqué nature in a fairly academic style ( Satyr and Bacchante, Leda and the Swan), more sensual and less Wagnerian than Bouguereau, somewhat sickly in colour and scrupulously smooth in execution. Still skilfully academic in technique, he then moved on to modern subjects such as An Autopsy at the Hôtel-Dieu or works inspired by literature such as Rolla after De Musset, but in a modern context and probably with advice from Degas (1878). This last painting was withdrawn from the Salon because it was thought to be indecent; he duly exhibited it for three months in a private gallery in the Chausée d'Antin, where it attracted many viewers and was a succès de scandale.
In his second period, from Café Scene of 1877, he adopted a lighter style and took his inspiration from contemporary life - the 'Belle Époque' in La Joie de vivre and then the 'Années Folles' (the Mad Years) in Mannequins at Jenny's, During the Interval. He painted many female figures, always nude. He mixed with the Impressionists, whom he met in the cafés of the Nouvelle Athènes quarter, now the 9th arrondissement in Paris; his influence as a jury member was instrumental in his friend Manet's admission to the Salon. Gervex contributed to the public subscription of 1889 by donating his Olympia to the French nation, and was a friend of Degas and a constant companion of Renoir. In 1876 he was the model for the male figure in Renoir's The Swing and also appears in the Ball at the Moulin de la Galette.
In addition to painting, he illustrated Balzac's La fille aux yeux d'or (Girl with the Golden Eyes), and did decorative panels for the foyer of the Opéra-Comique, the buffet of the Gare de Lyon, the town hall of La Villette, the Sorbonne, the town hall of the 19th arrondissement (1881, Civil Marriage, for which he used Zola as a model) and in 1888 a ceiling in the auditorium of the Hôtel-de-Ville, Paris. In 1896, during his first visit to Russia, he was commissioned to paint The Coronation of Tsar Nicholas II.
One of the abiding interests of his work is his treatment of the recreational activities of his time. His output was prolific, if not always subtle, and he adhered constantly, though discreetly, to the Impressionist vision, his tempered interpretation of which made it more acceptable to a public that found the work of the bold radicals of the movement too revolutionary. In Work ( L'Oeuvre) Zola based the character Fagerolles, who 'jostled the crowd just enough to make it swoon', on Henri Gervex; though he may have been mistaken about Cézanne in his anti-hero Lantier.
Gervex first exhibited in Paris at the Salon of 1873, and did so for a long time, though he eventually left it for the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. He became Commandeur of the Légion d'Honneur and was elected to the Institut in 1913. In 1992 the Galerie des Beaux-Arts of Bordeaux Museum held a very inclusive exhibition of his works.
Museum and Gallery Holdings
Angers (MBA): Diana and Endymion (1875)
Bordeaux (MBA): Rolla (1878)
Chambéry (MBA): View of a Beach; Portrait of a Woman; Deposition
Detroit (IA): Café Scene (1877)
Dijon (MBA): Communion at the Trinity Church (1877)
Limoges: An Autopsy at the Hôtel-Dieu
Montluçon: Satyr Playing with a Bacchante (1874)
Paris (Mus. d'Orsay): Satyr and Bacchante (1874); Portrait of Madame Valtesse de la Bigne (1879); Before the Operation (1887); To the French Republic (1890)
Paris (Mus. du Petit Palais): Birth of Venus