From humble origins, Théodule Ribot was born in a small village of the French Eure region. He developed an artistic talent very early on and began his training at a trade school in Châlons. The death of his father in 1840, when he was only 17, forced Théodule to assume the duties of head of household. He held several menial jobs, married early, and left for Paris in 1845 in the hope of a better future. In Paris, he worked as an artisan, decorating gilded frames and joined the atelier of Auguste-Bathélémy Glaize, his only recorded master. While in Glaize’s studio, Ribot spent the greater part of his time trying to make ends meet. He colored lithographs for popular novels and decorated window shades and curtains. He also painted trade signs and, for American exportation, copied the work of 18th century artists from the Louvre . In 1848, Théodule sailed to Algeria to work as a foreman for three years.
Upon his return to Paris, Ribot still struggled to earn a living and took on more menial day jobs. However, he pursued his artistic career tirelessly by lamplight at night, painting themes and elements from his own home and using his wife and son as models. As a result, his work is inherently personal. His style was clearly influenced by the Dutch and Spanish masters, which he probably saw after the opening the Louvre’s Galerie Espagnole in 1838. In fact, the Galerie Espagnole greatly inspired several members of the first generation of the Realist movement and Ribot’s friends, including François Bonvin and Alphonse Legros. They all admired the work of Zurbaran and Ribera for their dark and minimalist backgrounds, as well as their subtle depiction of shadow and light that immediately draws the viewer to the main subject of the scene.
During the 1850s, Ribot sent several paintings to the Salon but was repeatedly rejected. In 1859, it was thanks to his friendship with Bonvin, also a still life painter, that Ribot showed his paintings in a public exhibition for the first time. At last, Ribot was accepted at the Paris Salon in 1861 and found critical acclaim for his kitchen scenes. Ribot’s success in depicting young kitchen cooks led him to expand his range of themes to include religious subjects. His Saint Sebastien was shown at the 1865 Salon and purchased by the State. It is now at the Musée d’Orsay.
Ribot’s cooks became increasingly in demand on the art market during the 1860s. His pictures sold well in the art galleries of Louis Martinet and Alfred Cadart, both patrons of the Realist school. The prestigious dealer Bernheim Jeune organized popular pioneer exhibitions of Ribot’s art. Most notably was his 1887 show, considered the first retrospective of Ribot’s career.
As noted by Dominique Lobstein, “Ribot got himself a clientele, he had several dealers who sold his art abroad, but in Colombes, his dog and his cats lived in the house and the hens in the front yard. He had the life of an artisan. Ribot was the anti-artist.” (Le Journal des Arts, n°515, 18 January 2019) Ribot chose to live secluded in his modest home in the small village of Colombes in the suburbs of Paris, and independently from any artistic groups. His numerous friends however, who were themselves part of the art establishment, remained loyal to him and his intimate work. In 1878, Ribot was named officer to the Legion of Honor, but the following year a serious illness forced an already declining Ribot to retire. In 1884 his fellow artists, including Jules Bastien-Lepage, Boudin, Fantin-Latour, Monet, Puvis de Chavannes and Auguste Rodin held a banquet in his honor and gave him a medal inscribed " To Théodule Ribot, the independent painter." In 1892, the posthumous retrospective organized at the École des Beaux-Arts marked the acceptance by the Establishment of Ribot’s contribution to the history of French art.