Lemeunier was born in the small Normandy village of Antoigny, 40 km to the north east of Mayenne. As a young man he started by painting the walls of his parent’s house before supposedly moving on to paint ‘all the walls of the village’. He was soon taking commissions for portraits from clients in Mayenne. His talents were recognised by the local authorities who awarded him a two-year scholarlship to pursue his studies in Paris. He there entered the studio of Edouard Detaille while also attending classes given by the painter Amédée Hédin. By 1888 he was sending work to the Paris Salon and this he continued to do until the year before his death. His works received awards in 1891 and 1907, as also at the Expositions Universelles of 1889 and 1900. He became a close friend of Detaille and also worked as an assistant on that artist’s major project for the decoration of the Pantheon in Paris, squaring designs for transfer and collaborating on the execution of the decorative friezes. In his own work besides portraits, Lemeunier mostly painted scenes from contemporary life, including genre scenes and Paris street scenes.
Lemeunier’s portrait of Detaille shows him at work on the monster canvas of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ exhibited in 1891 at the Cercle de l’Union Artistique and acquired two years later by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Lemeunier’s portrait, which was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1891, is evidently based on an intimate knowledge of Detaille’s studio and working methods. The portrait provides an inventory of the props and materials employed in the elaboration of Detaille’s great canvas. These include numerous items of military apparel, as well as armour, helmets, a peaked hat, a horse’s bridle and caprison, a short-barrelled flintlock rifle, swords, banners, drums and bugles. These are interspersed with artist’s materials including a canvas seen from the rear with its colourman’s stamp, a palette knife, a pot of brushes, several paint tubes, bottles of oil, books, and portfolios of drawings. On the wall behind hangs a fragment of Detaille’s own painting of the ‘Distribution of Standards, 14 July 1880’, a work which owing to adverse criticism at the Salon of 1881 the artist cut in pieces, apparently retaining only this portion (currently at Versailles). Below this are four large frames each containing multiple monochrome images which might, intriguingly, be photographs. Dominating all these items is the enormous canvas only partially worked up, with areas of underdrawing and blocking in clearly discernable.
The disordered aspect of the studio may represent an element of artistic license on Lemeunier’s part. A description of the studio given by the novelist Miguel Zamacoïs corresponds with Lemeunier’s image in most but not all respects:
Edouard Detaille’s studio which I visited occasionally, was an exact reflection of the famous military painter’s appearance and way of life. Everything was clean, tidy polished ready for parade. The artist fully dressed, clean-shaven, not a hair out of place, would paint standing before an easel or perched on a step-ladder. … His palette (immaculate) would be in his hand – his studio was like a military museum. Rows of cardboard heads, which Detaille himself had painted, bearing wigs, carabineers’ helmets, shakoes, hats decorated with silk cords or feathers, of all kinds and of all countries, were ranged on shelves against one wall. Around and about were panoplies of sabres, swords, bayonets, lances and armour from all over Europe.
In an account of Lemeunier’s s career published in the Paris periodical ‘Gil Blas’ in 1895 this painting is cited, along with another portrait showing the painter Henri Cain in his studio, as one of the artist’s most remarkable works. The picture had been noted in the same journal on its appearance at the Salon as ‘fort gentil, le Detaille sur une grande échelle’ (very fine, the portrait of Detaille on a large ladder). It was also described in the journal ‘Le Rappel’ as ‘un portrait très étudié et très clair du peintre Edouard Detaille, campé debout sur les marches d’un escalier volant en train de peindre dans son atelier’ (‘a very meticulous and bright portrait of Detaille stood on the rungs of a step ladder engaged in painting in his studio’). Later that year the picture was also exhibited at Rouen, along with the portrait of Henri Cain (whereabouts unknown). Although the pictures were described as portraits, a journalist writing for the ‘Chronique des Arts’ echoed what may have been the response of many spectators in regarding them as primarily views of studio interiors in which the figures appear as accessories. The portrait of Detaille must be among the most evocative and informative of all painted images of a 19th-century artist’s studio.