Jean Béraud was born in St Petersburg in 1849, the son of a French sculptor, Jean Béraud, who had probably moved to the city to work on the cathedral of St Isaac. His mother took the family to Paris after her husband’s death in 1853. Jean, like his friend Marcel Proust, was educated at the Lycée Bonaparte (today the Lycée Condorcet). He briefly studied law at the University of Paris and in 1870-71 served in the Garde Nationale during the Siege of Paris. Abandoning law for art, in 1872-3 he studied in the studio of the portrait painter Léon Bonnat. Béraud exhibited two portraits at the Salon in 1873, showing there until 1889.
Béraud’s Salon exhibit of 1876, After the funeral (private collection), established his reputation as a chronicler of Parisian life in paintings which combine an Impressionistic freedom of brushwork with acute and witty observation of fashions, physiognomies, class and personalities in the ordered chaos of the teeming modern city. Once declaring ‘I find everything but Paris wearisome’, Béraud painted both high life and low life, from aristocratic salons and racing at Auteil to Insoumises in the lock-up, 1886 (private collection), which depicts prostitutes rounded up by the police in the cold light of dawn. A brilliant draughtsman and illustrator, Béraud sketched his Parisians from the windows of horse-drawn cabs.
Béraud’s work was greeted with great enthusiasm and he was welcomed into Parisian society, receiving commissions for portraits from famous figures such as the Prince d’Orléans and Prince Troubetskoy. Urbane and exquisitely dressed, he frequented the salons of the Countesses Potocka, de Noailles and d’Agoult, and in 1897 was Proust’s Second in a duel. Béraud, who never married, was also happy in theatrical company: his closest friend was the celebrated actor Coquelin the Elder.
Jean Béraud was a founding member and Vice President of the Sociéte Nationale des Beaux-arts, where he exhibited between 1910 and 1929. He was awarded a gold medal from the Society of French Artists in 1889 and a gold medal at the Universal Exhibition in 1889. In 1887 he was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur.
In 1891 Béraud caused a scandal by exhibiting at the Salon Mary Magdalene visiting the Pharisee (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), which transposed the Biblical story into a contemporary setting and shone a harsh light on modern morals. Several paintings of subsequent decades show the inhabitants of modern Paris taking part in the events of the Bible, such as the Mocking of Christ, or allude to the gap between rich and poor, such as The insurgence, 1896 (private collection). Béraud’s satires were coldly received, although he remained an important figure in the artistic life of Paris. Following his death in 1935, the Musée Carnavalet held a retrospective of his work.
The work of Jean Béraud is represented in the Musée du Louvre, Paris; the Musée d’Orsay, Paris; the National Gallery, London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC and the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.