Gad, I love this picture.
We continue our weeklong look at Jean George Vibert (1840-1902) with one of his finest pictures, The Fortune Teller.
Vibert served in the war of 1870-71 as a sharpshooter, and was wounded at the battle of Malmaison in October of 1870. He was awarded the Légion d’Honneur and became a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur for his efforts.
While recovering from his war wounds, Vibert started writing plays, staging many productions and sometimes serving as actor in his own works. Not surprisingly, his plays mocked the establishment and contemporary mores. He also wrote an operetta, Chanteuse par Amours, performed at the Variétés in 1877. It was at this time that he also starting writing short stories Century Magazine in the US, finding a free public relations bonanza in writing stories based on his pictures.
Vibert continued to submit work to the Salon until 1899 with L’Aigle et le Renard (The Eagle and the Fox). No slouch at self-promotion (or self-congratulation), Vibert wrote of himself in the third person: …being an excellent cook, you have invented and prepared sauces that make your compatriots lick their fingers; that, using your pen as well as your brush, you have written songs and plays that have been applauded in the minor theaters of Paris; that, following the example of Molière, and having, like him, an extraordinary talent as an actor, you have played your own productions at the club and in artistic salons; then, having a passion for building, and trying your hand at all the trades, you are not only your own architect, but do not disdain occasionally to work in iron, like Louis XVI., or in wood, like the good St. Joseph; and finally that, in decorating your house, you have distinguished yourself as an upholsterer. In the last particular, you may even say that you surpass Molière, or he, although the son of an upholsterer, was not himself one.
So, it is no surprise that a man with such a dramatic turn of mind would paint a picture as boldly dramatic as The Fortune Teller.
As with other pictures we have seen, Vibert strives to render the clergy (particularly cardinals) as both human and ridiculous. Certainly good churchmen should have no traffic with such superstition as fortune tellers or tricksters. However, both cardinals (one amused, the other thoughtful) look on, an enormous Gutenberg bible on the bookstand beside them.
As usual with Vibert’s clergy, the cardinals are in a room of considerable splendor. The gilt table, divan with canopy, Oriental carpet and magnificent fireplace, though, all become a mere backdrop to the drama of the fortune teller.
The Fortune Teller herself stands as if in a spotlight. Her confederates (other gypsies, perhaps?), stand ready upstage left. Her raiment is as colorful and dramatic as that of the cardinals, and the train of her dress follows the flowing line of the train of one of the cardinal’s robes. Indeed, the Fortune Teller’s cards and box of magic are proudly displayed, much like the on-display bible of the cardinals.
What is perhaps most significant here – and why I think this is one of Vibert’s finest works – is how the artist uses light. While the Fortune Teller is in the ‘spotlight,’ so are the robes of the two cardinals, linking the figures together. More telling is the light from the stained glass windows near the other gypsies – light comes from behind them, illuminating the figures modeled in glass. But, aren’t the figures from early Christian mythology more reminiscent of the costumes of the performing gypsies than that of the cardinals? While Vibert is drawing a parallel between the dawn of Christianity and the simple superstitions of the gypsies, he is also commenting on the smug condescension of the church. Notice the supercilious smile of one of the cardinals. “Superstitious peasants,” the look says. “We know so much better.” However, Vibert points out the amusing truth that there is little that separates the two.