Clémentine-Hélène Dufau

1869Quinsac, France | 1937Paris, France
Clémentine-Hélène Dufau — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Anonyme, Clémentine-Hélène Dufau, Washington, Congress Library, Bain Collection

French painter and poster artist.

Clémentine-Hélène Dufau (born Catherine-Hélène Dufau) was born into a wealthy family in south-western France. She was christened Clémentine-Hélène, a name she would choose as her artist’s signature until 1925, at which point she simplified it to “Hélène Dufau”.
A fall in her childhood left her with a limp, forcing her to spend many hours in bed, during which she would occupy herself by reading and drawing. In 1888, once their two eldest daughters were married, the Dufau family moved to Paris so that Clémentine-Hélène could take lessons from William Bouguereau (1825-1905) and Tony Robert-Fleury (1837-1911) at the Académie Julian.
She first exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Français in 1889 and in 1895 received the Marie Bashkirtseff prize, which rewarded young talents. In 1897 she won a third-class medal at the Salon, confirming her status as a professional artist, and the French state purchased her Fils de mariniers [Bargemen’s children]. Marguerite Durand commissioned her to design a poster for her newly launched feminist daily newspaper La Fronde, which drew considerable attention. The following year, C.-H. Dufau was awarded a scholarship that enabled her to study in Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. From 1902 she presented her work out of competition at the Salon des Artistes Français. Her canvas Automne [Autumn, 1902] was purchased for the Musée du Luxembourg. By 1903 she was also exhibiting at the Salon d’Automne.

Once her career was launched, her work was followed by the art press as well as by feminist and women’s magazines, and was frequently mentioned in the art reporting of daily newspapers alongside discussion of her male counterparts. The critic Camille Mauclair devoted a twelve-page article to her in 1905. She received praise for her experience and talent as a colourist. In addition to her career as a painter, she designed advertising posters for brands such as Byrrh and for balls and exhibitions. She also provided book illustrations for Paul Adam’s Basile et Sophia (1900) and J.-H. Rosny’s Les Femmes de Setné (1903), among others.
C.-H. Dufau’s close ties with Symbolist and esoteric circles, which were more open to women, gave her access to networks and support that have remain to be studied. She received major commissions from the state: a series of morality etchings for schools in 1900 and, most importantly, four decorative panels for the Sorbonne’s Salle des Autorités (Astronomy-Mathematics, Radioactivity-Magnetism, Zoology and Geology) in 1905. These commissioned works also demonstrated her knowledge and taste for contemporary science. As a close friend of the Rostand family, she painted portraits of them and their relatives and decorated their house in Cambo-les-Bains.

She was awarded the Legion of Honour in 1909. A comprehensive solo exhibition of her portraits and decorative panels was held at Galerie Brunner, Paris, in 1911. She submitted a final piece to the Salon des Artistes Français in 1914 and, after the war, a few more to the Salon des Tuileries between 1926 and 1930. By then her work had become irrelevant to the critics and gradually sunk into oblivion despite several exhibitions with the Société des Femmes Artistes Modernes (Society of modern women artists) from 1932 to her death. One of her canvases was featured in the major exhibition Les Femmes artistes d’Europe at the Jeu de Paume in 1937.
She settled in Antibes in 1926, most likely out of financial necessity. She died there in extreme poverty eleven years later. Her testimonial book, Les Trois Couleurs de la Lumière, was published in 1932. An esoteric and feminist manifesto, it combines esoteric tradition and scientific research, particularly about resonance and colour frequencies, and insists on the recognition of women in the field of metaphysical studies.

Catherine Gonnard

Translated from French by Lucy Pons.

Publication made in partnership with musée d’Orsay.
© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions

© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
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