Take courage, late bloomers! Persistence sometimes pays off. It certainly did in the case of Eugène Leroy, a painter born in Tourcoing, near France's border with Belgium. Although the reputation he enjoyed, once he'd established one, was as an isolato, an artist who'd worked in humble obscurity most of his life, that wasn't quite accurate: From the 1940s onward he exhibited regularly, primarily in France and Belgium but also abroad, and to all appearances with gradually increasing success. Still, he only gave up his day job as a schoolteacher in 1963, and it was 1983 before his career went to a different level when he began exhibiting with the Galerie Michael Werner in Cologne. But his late success can be attributed to the late blossoming of his work; only in the 1970s, when he was already over sixty, did his artistic project come decisively and consistently into focus. Now, ten years after his death, he is being celebrated with a centenary exhibition in his hometown museum, recently renamed in his honor.
Not that Leroy's art underwent dramatic changes'in fact, it displays remarkably little development. From the 1930s through the '60s, you can see him trying various influences on for size, yet he never looks like any artist other than himself. His earliest paintings seem to be straining to become what his late ones finally, without the least bit of strain, were. This may sound paradoxical, considering that Leroy's mature works evidence so much effort, encrusted as they are with layer after layer of paint, looking much as one imagines Frenhofer's 'chef-d'ouevre inconnu'/i> did in Balzac's famous tale: He all but buries the image'for there always is an image in Leroy's paintings, however difficult in may sometimes be to make it out'under the sheer mass of embroiled pigment. But Leroy's incessant and furious returns to the same surface don't feel agitated or neurotic; rather, he is a sensualist. Constantly placing and displacing color is a way of keeping his hand on it.
Leroy is a slow burn. His paintings are not easy to like. I couldn't stand them when I first saw them'and even once you get the hang of them there remains something puzzling about whether and why one is any better than another. The ability of that unknown something'the very distantly or indirectly perceived image'to 'hold'a viewer may be an essential part of Leroy's subject. What gives his paintings this fascination is the way they work through a dialectic of darkness and radiance. Obscurity, one senses, was a positive value in Leroy's eyes. Even early on, when he was more inclined to use a bright palette, he used light colors as if they were dark one'to blur his subject. But that obfuscation was never absolute; it was always the vehicle for a glow, a brilliance that would be detachable from the empirical entity underlying it. Thus, although he repeatedly painted the female nude, his paintings show no concern with either the flesh or its form but only with what might be called a flash of illumination in which both flesh and form are at once dissolved and memorialized. One might say something similar of the idea of a classical tradition in painting, to which Leroy's efforts are in evident homage. It is impossible not to think of the Venetians and the Romantics, Rembrandt and Rubens: the whole 'painterly'side of the great tradition'an immense heritage that Leroy's delicate and idiosyncratic talent memorializes as it dissolves.