A line of poor people, young and old, head towards the soup kitchen at ‘La Bouchée de pain’ (A mouthful of bread). The scene takes place on a winter morning in a street in Paris illuminated by streetlights. The worn out clothes and the body language of the walking figures speak volumes about the condition of these unemployed workers. The painter Ferdinand Pelez, who lived in Montmartre, offers a strikingly truthful testimony of working class Paris at the end of the 19th century.

Mouthful of Bread was the only painting that Pelez painted for the State, for a commission from the French Ministry for Fine Arts in 1881. He only started working on this large composition (French National Contemporary Art Collection) after 1900, and completed it in 1908. Ten preparatory sketches are currently conserved in the Petit Palais. They are painted in a range of brown tones in the style of ink washes. The characters are depicted in groups or individually, and are life-size. Men from the street came to pose in Pelez’s studio at 62 Boulevard de Clichy. Some models are young and wear workers’ clothing while others, older and dressed in rags, have fallen into poverty.

Urban poverty was worst among unqualified workers and those who were ill or injured at work, who were left without employment or money as a result of economic crises. Before the arrival of social reforms, Catholic organisations continued to play a predominant role in charitable work at the end of the 19th century. La Bouchée de pain was opened on Rue Cujas, and was named in reference to Jesus’ Last Supper with the Apostles.

Josephin Péladan, who wrote Pelez’s funeral eulogy in 1913, highlighted this close relationship between the painter’s art and the Christian thinking of his time: “He was a mystic, he depicted paupers in the purest, most beautiful pictorial way you could imagine. His brush wiped away the tears of unjust pain from the faces of the unfortunate, and he deserves the title of ordinary painter to his Sole Christian Majesty, Poverty”

I. C.

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