Jules Adler, La grève au Creusot (The Strike at Creusot), 1899, oil on canvas, 91 × 118 7⁄8".

Jules Adler, La grève au Creusot (The Strike at Creusot), 1899, oil on canvas, 91 × 118 7⁄8".

Jules Adler

The French painter Jules Adler was a popular artist in his lifetime, and this, ironically, is likely why you have never heard of him. Adler, the subject of the recent survey “Jules Adler: Peintre du Peuple” (Painter of the People), curated by Amélie Lavin and Claire Decomps, was not part of the Parisian avant-garde. He didn’t need to be: He had mainstream acclaim. Born in the Franche-Comté in 1865, Adler trained in Paris at the elite Académie Julian and entered the École des Beaux-Arts in 1884. In 1885, he had his first painting accepted into the Salon, which was notorious for rejecting many now-famous Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. He would show there regularly over the course of his decades-long career and become a favorite artist of the French state, which purchased many of his works for national collections.

An asset in its day, Adler’s popularity has since constituted his downfall, excluding him from a twentieth-century art history populated by bohemians and bad boys. “Painter of the People” sought to correct this state of affairs. Offering a comprehensive overview of Adler’s work, the exhibition was intended to restore the artist to public view and to prove that his conventional success was a sign of his extraordinariness, not a strike against it. Hosted by the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme, the show emphasized the many obstacles to fame Adler faced as a Jewish artist living in a time when anti-Semitism in France was, arguably, at its modern apex. His career survived the Dreyfus Affair and only began to stall in 1940, when the Vichy French government banned Jewish artists from exhibiting in the official Salon. Adler resigned from the Société des Artistes Français and in 1944 was placed in a southeastern Paris hospice, which served as a makeshift internment camp for elderly Jews, though he survived until 1952.

That Adler managed to have such a long run despite public anti-Semitism speaks to the charm and humanity of his work. An ardent republican, Adler believed in the power of social realism à la Courbet, choosing to paint in a naturalistic style long after it went out of fashion and to dedicate his art to commemorating the lives and struggles of the working class: His commitment earned him the nickname “the painter of the humble.” He documented major national events from the perspective of the masses, as in L’armistice (The Armistice), 1918, showing a crowd of returning privates dancing across the streets of Paris to celebrate the war’s end. He also gave labor struggles and mundane factory scenes the monumental scale of major historical events, and their protagonists the prominence of allegorical heroes. In the massive canvas La grève au Creusot (The Strike at Creusot), 1899, a highlight of the exhibition, picketing metalworkers in central France sing protest chants, some holding aloft the tricolor. A riff on Eugène Delacroix, it takes as central figure a somber, ruddy-faced flag bearer shrouded in black—a far cry from the bare-breasted beauty leading the charge in La Liberté guidant le people (Liberty Leading the People), 1830. In Les enfourneurs (The Stokers), 1910, men work together to kindle the fire at a glass factory, their sweat-streaked faces and limbs radiant under the light of the furnace.

Such images swell with sympathy and compassion, expressing a solidarity with industrial workers absent in many early-twentieth-century masterpieces. Adler’s figures are people—dynamic, vocal, corporeal—not animatronic cogs in some factory gear, as Fernand Léger might have imagined them. Adler’s unwillingness to fetishize industrial progress and mechanization is refreshing in light of what now seems the naive techno-optimism of much twentieth-century modernism.