Adolphe-Félix Cals was born into a humble family, but his parents did everything in their power to ensure that their reserved and rather frail son might be spared the rigours of manual labour. In light of the family's circumstances, it was thought best that Félix-Adophe be apprenticed to the engraver Anselin, a close friend of the Cals family. When Anselin died suddenly, Félix-Adolphe continued to learn his craft, first under the engraver Ponce (with whom he worked for three years), then under Bosc, who taught him cold-chisel engraving. Cals finally entered Cogniet's atelier at the École des Beaux-Arts, where it is recorded that Cogniet and his new pupil did not see eye to eye: the paternalistic Cogniet advised Cals to work in a 'popular' mode, but Félix-Adolphe declined, arguing that he was prepared to assume the consequences of developing a more personal style. Cogniet is then reputed to have told him he was jeopardizing his career, admonishing Cals that he was simply 'another Corot'; in other words, that he [Cogniet] washed his hands of him. Despite this withdrawal of official support, Cals went his own way. He married, but the marriage did not last.
Cals was befriended by the gallery owner Martin, who helped him eke out a living by selling several canvases, but it was not until Cals was almost fifty years old that his career took a turn for the better. Martin introduced him to Count Doria, an avid art collector who liked Felix-Adolphe's work and who used his connections to procure Cals a number of commissions. Better still, an invitation to live and work at the count's Château d'Orrouy meant that Cals was freed from concerns of a more materialistic nature. That said, in 1869 Cals' daughter suffered a complete nervous breakdown from which she only recovered two years later.
As of 1871, however, Cals was free to divide his time between Paris and Honfleur. A group of close friends and admirers formed around him and gave him material support, so much so that the last ten years of his life were among his most productive. He died in 1880 in Honfleur, his only regret, documented in his final letters, being that he would no longer be able to devote himself to his 'beloved painting'. He wrote to a friend expressing the hope that 'God will let me die with a brush in my hand. At all events, the joy I have found in painting will accompany me to the grave'.
Cals exhibited at the 1846 Salon, where he was critically acclaimed without being awarded a hoped-for medal. He went on to exhibit at the Salons of 1868, 1869 and 1870, submitting a Portrait of Mademoiselle C. and Grandmother and Grandson in 1868, a Portrait of M. de B. in 1869, and a Farm in Normandy and a Portrait of Mademoiselle A. de L. in 1870. He went on to take part in the Impressionist exhibitions, starting with the first in 1874, then in 1876, 1877, 1879 and 1881.
After his death, exhibitions at the Berne-Bellecour Gallery and another major exhibition held from 20 May to 14 June 1901 successfully collated a major portion of his body of work.
Cals' paintings of peasants, sailors and the poor betray a sensitivity which ranks him alongside Jean-François Millet and Josef Israels. In a latter to a friend, he conceded that 'there are those who are destined to live lives of misery, fated to become objects of distaste and revulsion; be that as it may, I have always felt myself drawn to these poor creatures.'
Between 1859 and 1870, Cals' output was substantial: landscapes, interiors, female studies and several delicately-executed portraits. His long-standing friendship with Jongkind and, subsequent to his move to Honfleur, his close relationships with painters of the St-Siméon farmyard school, were symptomatic of his admiration for the Impressionists, exemplified in his own Sunset at Honfleur of 1873 or his Luncheon at Honfleur of 1875. His work reveals little of the carefree abandonment of a Boudin, but his discreetly-sensitive technique is akin to that of a Daubigny.
Museum and Gallery Holdings
Honfleur: Young Woman
Paris (Louvre): Woman Cording Rope; Bacon and Herring; Sunset; Female Study; Luncheon at Honfleur
Rheims: Heads of Young Girls; Woman Knitting; Landscape