Born in Paris on September 30, 1840, Jehan Georges Vibert was one of France’s most renowned Academic genre painters, especially for his ironic depictions of ecclesiastical life. Born the son of an engraver and publisher, Vibert was raised to read and write in Greek and Latin. Vibert was trained at a young age by his maternal grandfather, famed engraver Jean-Pierre-Marie Jazet (1788-1871). Showing a greater interest in painting than engraving, due to the use of color, Vibert began studying under porcelain painter and miniaturist Félix-Joseph Barrias (1822-1907). He then took up a position at the École de Beaux-Arts at sixteen-years-old. Vibert studied at the École for six years under Barrias, who required three years of drawing experience, and later under François-Edouard Picot (1786-1868).
Although Vibert traveled throughout the Middle East and North Africa, he never aspired to be an Orientalist painter, and drew inspiration instead from his several trips to Spain. After meeting Spanish artist Eduardo Zamacois (1841-1871) in 1860, Vibert became enamored with Spain and its culture, and painted many works inspired by his travels abroad.
After his first visit to Spain, Vibert debuted at the Paris Salon of 1863 with the paintings La Sieste and Repentir. The influence of Picot, Vibert’s former teacher, is evident in his early paintings, where he created large-scale mythological subjects. He also painted subjects like grand symbolical paintings, historical works, and Christian subjects. Vibert, however, did not achieve fame from these traditional paintings, and instead, grew to great renown through his satirical, amusing, and even risqué themes that appealed to the willing market of the rising French middle-class.
Vibert was famous for his daring and technically exceptional paintings of clerics. His era was marked with criticism of the Catholic Church’s corruption, so his cynical depictions of the clergy, often portrayed in irreligious acts, was greatly enjoyed by his patrons. Critic Eugène Montrosier wrote of his success: “Not being able to bring the amateurs to his doors, [Vibert] resolved to follow their tastes...he boarded the ‘genre’ as bravely as he had the ‘grand style,’ and with much more tangible success.”
While Vibert was first and foremost a painter, he was a greatly decorated and multi-talented man. He was awarded the Légion of Honneur, the highest French decoration for exemplary civil or military conduct, after being wounded in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, where he volunteered as a sharpshooter. Later, in 1882, the French government promoted Vibert from Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur to Officer, in acknowledgement of his artistic accomplishments. The vibrant red color with which he painted, so prominent in his paintings of cardinals, was termed “Vibert’s red.” Vibert also created artistic tools and developed novel practices in art, which he shared in his treatise on painting technology, Science en Peinture (1891). Furthermore, Vibert published a two-volume work called La Comédie en Peinture (1902), where he elaborated on his famed paintings and described their origins or meaning.
Pairing exquisite wit with fine technical skills, it is no surprise Vibert found international fame and commercial success during his lifetime, particularly in France and in the United States. His increasing renown enabled him to be among the most sought-after masters at the École des Beaux-Arts. Vibert’s paintings were highly valued and attractive to wealthy patrons like William Vanderbilt and John Jacob Astor IV, who commissioned his work. The painting The Missionary’s Story (1883), which belongs to the Met, sold for $25,500 in the United States in 1886, which for its time was a remarkable amount. Unfortunately, his life ended abruptly in 1902 due to heart disease, putting an end to his unique mastery of the arts.