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Jules Lefebvre (1836-1911)


by S Zervos

was 19 when she posed for the painting Chloe. This is her story.
is a National  Icon protected by the National Trust and Heritage of  the State of Victoria (listed 1988). She was painted by the French master Jules Joseph Lefebvre, regarded as one of the greatest painters of the 19th century. The work is without doubt the most famous, most viewed and most loved foreign work of art in Australia. The name Chloe comes from the Greek for tender sprout, or budding beauty.

Chloe is especially dear to all Melburnians and even the slightest hint of disparagement is enough to provoke a stream of unsolicited suggestions from any native of that fair city. Chloe is on permanent public display across the road from the busy Flinders St station hub, where she is hard to miss.

Painted in Paris by Lefebvre in 1875 and posed for by the French model Marie (see below), Chloe was exhibited in the Paris Salon in the same year and Lefebvre was awarded the Gold Medal of Honour, the highest award given to a French painter. More gold medals and awards quickly followed.

In 1880 the French sent Chloe to Australia on a show-off tour and in 1882 sold her at auction to Dr. Thomas Fitzgerald (those foolish French), who later sold her to Henry Young in 1908.

She has been shown at the International Exhibitions of Sydney (1879), Melbourne (1880) and the National Gallery of Victoria (1883,1995).
In 1979 Chloe toured Australia for a successful Red Cross fund raising
event and now lives at Young & Jackson's famous establishment in the heart of Melbourne.

She has graced the walls of universities, boardrooms and parliaments and is the much envied mascot of HMAS Melbourne (what else?). She has been admired and toasted by Prime Ministers, Knights, dignitaries, poets, artists, celebrities and gob-smacked youths on their way to war.

She has collected a few bruises on her way to fame and the hearts of Australians. In WWII she impacted with an airborne beer bottle, bumped into a few drunks, fended off several improper solicitations and was recently damaged by the accidental breakage of the protective glass that was supposed to, well, protect her.

Many of my Melbourne friends are familiar with Chloe, but I wonder how many admirers know the sad story of the girl portrayed in the painting.




Other famous paintings
by Lefebvre (detail)

The shy and tragic young French girl Marie who posed for Chloe is largely unknown and no one seems to have any interest in her. The thousands of connoisseurs  who study the painting of Chloe seem more concerned with the finer points of technique in Lefebvre's faithful portrayal of her charms.

Marie was born in 1856 into a poor family living on the outskirts of Paris. She left home at an early age and went to the big city where she and her sister posed for artists to supplement their meagre income from the other  menial jobs they picked up. The leggy Marie's striking beauty got her much modelling work among the many artists who infested Paris at that time.

Lefebvre got to know the girls quite well (too well) and Marie became his favourite model --- she posed for Chloe in 1875 when she was 19.

Marie seemed to have had a penchant for older men and before long she fell madly in love with the painter. He was 40 and she was 19 when they became lovers. But Marie's genuine love was not as faithfully requited. During the time Lefebvre was enjoying her favours, probably between brush strokes, the rotter was also servicing her sister in a like manner.

About a year after painting Chloe, Lefebvre unexpectedly dropped Marie and married her sister. Why he would spurn such a delicate nymph in favour of her relatively mediocre sibling truly boggles the mind (as you can see he was no oil painting himself).

Marie was completely devastated when she heard the news.
Congreve's maxim states "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned".
But Marie, a loving and sensitive girl, was reluctant to upset the blissful  harmony of the two people she still loved.

The bottled-up anguish became too much for her. Two years after posing for Chloe she finally 'flipped'.  Marie put on a party for her friends. The party was in full swing when she quietly slipped into the kitchen and boiled up a toxic brew from some items she kept there. She drank the fatal mixture while her friends were still raging in another room ... Marie was only 21 years young.

So whenever any reader is admiring Chloe's charms in Lefebvre's painting  may I ask them to please pause and spare a thought for the tragic young woman who quit so young  yet inspired Lefebvre's, and possibly the 19th century's, greatest masterpiece.

Researched and written by s.zervos. copyright (c) 2007