Ferdinand Roybet

(1840 Uzès - 1920 Paris)

The Cellist

111 x 90 cm (43.7 x 35.4 in.)
oil on canvas
signed lower left ‘F. Roybet’


The Cellist is an undated oil painting by the French painter Ferdinand Roybet, which depicts a young male cellist dressed in a sumptuous Renaissance costume consisting of turquoise and black particoloured hose, magnificent golden slashed sleeves and a hat with a painterly dash of white feather. The jacket, with its bouffant shape in a rich, velvety black, adds drama to an already dynamic pose. Cradling the cello between his legs, the man’s arm hovers poised to play and his face turns to read from a flutter of crumpled music sheets that have been placed to the side. His expression is highly concentrated, and his furrowed brow suggests he is even quite vexed. Roybet’s painting appears to show a musician’s private hours of practice, in which he carefully masters his craft.

Though dark and sombre in tone, which is entirely appropriate for the subject, the colours have a rich intensity for which Roybet is particularly known. In 1898, a writer for the Horse and Hound wrote vaguely of another Roybet painting in which he described the main figure as ‘a cavalier… whose jet black costume is cleverly relieved by a deep orange-coloured sash, stands with his hand on the pommel of his rapier in an attitude of defiance’. The colours are gently balanced in order to complement each other, but the effect is not merely an aesthetic one, it subtly establishes a certain mood, which is what makes Roybet’s works so evocative.

Roybet was keenly aware of both old Masters and contemporaries, and the image recalls many works that he admired. He was surely inspired by past studies of musicians such as The Lute Player (c1623) by Frans Hals, in which a slightly buffoonish character peers off to the side in joyful contemplation. Or perhaps Watteau’s more resigned Mezzetin (c. 1718-20), a flirtatious schemer from the commedia dell’arte. Despite his interest in the past, Roybet was still very much a man of his time and the austere expression and murky tones of the work more closely recall The Cellist, Self-Portrait (1847) by Gustave Courbet, the father of the Realist movement. In his youth Delacroix produced Young Lutenist in Italian Renaissance Clothing (c. 1826-28), which is thought to propose a synaesthetic relationship between the two arts of music and composition in painting, expressed by colour and line.

When music, an art of time, is depicted in painting, an art of space, it has historically been for still lifes, where it serves as a symbol of time and a still, cerebral reference to its finite nature. In the late 19th century, as the Impressionists found a new interest in the everyday realities of Modernity, it took on a more atmospheric quality, bringing the painting to life as one fleeting moment captured by chance but very much a part of the present. Roybet appears to hover somewhere between these perspectives, clearly interested in reviving historical themes and yet adopting a highly realist, mid-action approach to his subject.

In the 19th century musical instruments were no longer luxury objects but mass-produced commodities that became newly available to the average citizen. This made it easier to become a musician or for painters to keep musical instruments in their studios and find musical subjects. As history painting began to be rejected by 19th century France, the genre painting of the 18th century was reimagined as a modern and democratic style that could appeal to all. The Belgian critic Camille Lemonnier, who was a supporter of Netherlandish painting and Gustave Courbet, wrote in 1870 that ‘genre takes over everything’, recognising its ability to reflect the complexity of the human experience in a way that was essentially modern and overwhelming popular with the Salon public.

Ferdinand Roybet (1840-1920), who was born in Uzès, near Nîmes, is best known for his fashionable Belle Epoque society portraits and his depictions of theatrical costume. The latter are picturesque but lively, showing relaxed figures sporting medieval or Renaissance costumes. Roybet employed a firm brushwork and used splendid colours, and the American historian John Charles Van Dyke once described his style as ‘half figure-piece, half genre’, for he was ‘fond of rich stuffs and tapestries with velvet-clad characters in interiors, out of which he makes good colour effects’. Roybet was influenced by Théodule Ribot and Antoine Vollon, two Realist painters from which he inherited a direct, unidealised approach to his subject. He also looked to masters of the Dutch and Flemish 17th century, and the adoptions of their style in France at that time, which inspired him to continue the traditions of genre painting.

Roybet studied Engraving as a pupil of Jehan Georges Vibert at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Lyon before moving to Paris in 1964 where he was quickly snapped up by dealers. He soon enjoyed a growing fame, and was described in The Athenaeum as having acquired ‘a reputation – a very lucrative one, I believe – by private exhibitions in the galleries of the picture dealers’. In 1893, Roybet was awarded the prestigious Médaille d’Honneur, a selection of the picture of the year that was voted for by a panel of French artists. The winning work was his Propos Galants, which was described by The Art Journal as ‘Neo-Flemish’ and features a man, whose musical background is hinted at by the trumpet in his satchel, making advances on a hearty woman or ‘Dulcinea’. When Roybet died in Paris aged 80, he had an obituary in American Art News which read: ‘his work attracted attention from the first, from its fine and strong draughtsmanship, brilliant colour, the lifelike expression of his subjects, and a certain dash, which showed the influence of Franz Hals [sic]’. It goes on to claim that Roybet had been hailed ‘The Modern Franz Hals’. A large collection of Roybet’s work can be found at the Musée Roybet-Fould in Courbevoie.


‘In Concert!: Musical Instruments in Art 1860-1910’ – Frederick Frank (2017)

‘Redefining Genre: French and American Painting 1850-1900’ – Gabriel Weisberg (1995)

‘Delacroix: The Music of Painting’ – Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark (2000)

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