Thursday, 28 January 2016

The strange case of Jeanne Samson Fichel

Jakobowicz, from Melun, France, sells on 6 February 2016 a "French School, 19th century, signed Fichel" painting of The Smell of Flowers, estimated at 80 to 100 Euro.

It isn't a particularly brilliant painting, although it has a very pleasing composition. But researching it a bit anyway lead to a strange story.

The painting is actually signed "J Fichel", which restricted the possibilities and excluded someone like Benjamin Eugène Fichel. Sales catalogues listed, without an image, one other painting by a "J Fichel", sold in Germany in 1985 for $1,300.

But another site of old auctions gave me the possible solution. Hargesheimer sold in 2011 a painting signed "J. Fichel" which was by Jeanne Samson Fichel, a late 19th century French woman painter. This fitted exactly with the painting here!

This lead me to some other works, and then the problems started. Apparently there are two types of Jeanne Samson Fichel paintings: some rather crude, amateurish, like the one for sale and some other examples I found; and some much more refined, elaborate, finished. Considering how little known Jeanne Fichel is, and the limited value involved, it seems unlikely that someone is faking these. Perhaps she rarely had the time to really finish a painting, or lacked the patience, or perhaps she made more money making fast mediocre paintings than slow good ones? Whatever the reason, I do believe that the two types of paintings are made by one and the same painter.

An important piece of the puzzle was the above black-and-white image of the painting for sale, or at least of a painting with the very same composition but apparently better executed (e.g. the head of the girl). I found it on Wikimedia Commons, and the image also learned me that the original is from 1878 and was called "Le Bouquet", and that she was born Jeanne Samson and married to a Fichel (Benjamin Eugène?).

And indeed, she was the wife of Eugène Benjamin Fichel (1826-1895), considering that the above, a different version of the J. Fichel from Hargesheimer that put me on the right track, was painted by Eugène... This is confirmed by the Jewish Encyclopedia, which also indicates that Jeanne exhibited at the Salon from 1878 on, the year from the black-and-white painting. The wedding was apparently on 8 October 1877. Jeanne Samson was presumably from Lyon, and lived from 1849 until 1906, so she was considerably younger than her husband. He was also her teacher, according to the Deutschen Nationalbibliothek. Another source indicates that her first appearance on the Salon was already in 1869, when she was only 20, and that Fichel was already her teacher by then.

Other good paintings by Jeanne Samson Fichel include the above from Christie's (as Jeanne Samson, 1893), sold for £3,000 in 2013 (multiple copies seem to exist); and one incorrectly labeled as "Jeanne Samson Fichtel", sold at Sotheby's in 1997 for $2,300.

The above work sold at Freeman's in 2009 for $6,500.

Poorer works, closer to the one for sale, include the above examples (some a lot worse than the one for sale), with the second one showing a very similar signature. The thrid one, for which I only have this small image from Drouot, is quite comparable in style and signature.

It is clear that the good works by Jeanne Salmon fetch a few thousand Euros, while the poor ones fetch a few hundred instead. Still, the work for sale seems undervalued, considering its charm, the fact that it is by a known painter, and the link to the good early painting. Whether it is a study (it's small, 33 by 24cm, so this seems certainly possible), or a fast copy made for some easy money, or something else, is  probably impossible to determine by now. But it is more than good enough to be worth a few hundred Euros.


  1. Thanks for this art detective work! I was just preparing to make an article for her on Wikipedia. Your entry proves that procrastination is always the best policy, because I uploaded that image from Project Gutenberg last year in Women's history month.

  2. Thanks! She is interesting, and I'ld love to know a bit more about her career, and why it floundered. She had talent, but only seems to have produced a few good works and many mediocre ones. Perhaps children and other traditionally female duties got in the way?