Pierre Roy

A Naturalist’s Study


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Pierre Roy 1880–1950
Original title
Le Cabinet du naturaliste
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 921 × 654 mm
frame: 1012 × 745 × 58 mm
Bequeathed by Boris Anrep 1969

Display caption

Like several of the Surrealists, with whom he exhibited in 1925, Pierre Roy used a precise style to portray an uncertain reality. A Naturalist’s Study alludes to the nineteenth-century concern with scientific classification and order. However, the relationship between these curious objects, including a paper snake and a string of eggs, remains mysterious. The artist’s son described this work as portraying a strangely motionless world: ‘Life seems to have stopped and become fixed like the locomotive itself in front of a chance or imaginary obstacle’.

Gallery label, December 2005

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Catalogue entry

Pierre Roy 1880-1950

T01182 Le Cabinet du Naturaliste (A Naturalist's Study) 1928

Inscribed 'P. Roy' b.r.
Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 25 3/4 (92 x 65.5)
Bequeathed by Boris Anrep 1969
Prov: Boris Anrep, Paris and London, acquired from the artist
Exh: XVII Biennale, Venice, April-October 1930 (Rooms 23-4, 24); Pierre Roy, Brummer Gallery, New York, November-December 1930 (36); Rétrospective Pierre Roy 1880-1950, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, May 1953 (47); Pierre Roy, Arthur Jeffress, London, November-December 1955 (15, as 'La Roue')
Repr: Formes, No.5, May 1930, Pierre Roy fig.3, as 'Physique Amusante' 1929; Art News, XXIX, 22 November 1930, p.21 as 'A Naturalist's Study'; Simon Wilson, Surrealist Painting (London 1975), pl.11 in colour

The artist's son, Captain Denys Roy, writes of this work (letter of 15 March 1970):

'Boris Anrep was my father's oldest and most faithful friend. A companion of the good and bad days, he acquired this picture at a moment when my father was a prey to a deep nervous and above all emotional depression. Barely recovered from the death of my mother, feeling a certain responsibility for her death, terrified by the thought of having a nine year old son and being ill-prepared for this responsibility, which he felt, wrongly as it turned out, would be a thorn in his side, abandoned by his mistress of the moment, nothing was going right for him, neither morally, nor emotionally, nor physically, nor financially above all.

'That is why this strange picture if it is examined very closely gives an impression of uncertainty in its precision and stillness, with movement only perceptible in the background of the painting. In fact the wheel, which I possess, is single instead of double, the hub cannot function as it has no hole through it, the paper snake is fastened to the floor, the string of eggs gives no suggestion of life, and as for the locomotive the wheels of the tender are coupled together, the steam from the whistle rises in the reverse direction to the smoke from the chimney and is lost in a menacing and static storm cloud. It is very hot and the trees dare not budge, as if they feared by their movement to disturb the intense heaviness of the whole. Life seems to have stopped and become fixed like the locomotive itself in front of a chance or imaginary obstacle.

'As Pierre Roy said, there is nothing to understand and it is only some time after finishing that I understand why and how I have painted such and such a work. To look for metaphysics or philosophy, to rack one's brain trying to understand what he wanted to say, seems to me beside the point. My father did not paint to create an impression or to gain notoriety; instead he painted to relieve his tension, from a need to re-evoke, sometimes only temporarily, the expression of some state of spirit which was itself no less vivid and transitory.

'This is what I think and my old friend Boris Anrep, with whom I discussed this painting many times, was also of this opinion.'

According to the catalogue of Roy's memorial exhibition at Nantes in 1953, this picture was painted in 1928 and was the artist's first use of the wheel, a motif which appears in several later pictures such as 'The Storm' 1930, and 'Fortune in Repose' and 'Fortune Prisoner' of 1932. The most closely related of these is 'Amusing Physics' of 1929, a picture of the same size formerly in the Pomaret collection (repr. in colour in Pierre Roy, Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover, April-June 1967). This includes most of the same elements (the small room, the wheel, birds' eggs, the notice pinned to the wall, etc.), but differently arranged. The two pictures have occasionally been confused and the present work was even reproduced in Formes, 1930, under the title 'Amusing Physics', collection Pomaret.

Boris Anrep's executrix, Mrs Gilbert Russell, adds that Boris Anrep and Pierre Roy met in Paris in 1908 when they were both working in the Atelier Jean-Paul Laurens at the Académie Julian, and they struck up a life-long friendship. Roy painted a portrait of Boris Anrep, which now belongs to her. Anrep also owned various other paintings and sketches by Roy of different periods, but nothing else of quite the same importance as T01182 (letter of 16 January 1970).

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.667-8, reproduced p.667

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