Smiling Angel | A Pastel War Story

Smiling Angel (pastel) by French artist Lionel Asselineau

At the outbreak of the First World War, the 13th-century Reims Cathedral—a landmark for tourists visiting the Champagne region of France—was seriously damaged by enemy shelling. The monument quickly became an emotional picture of the tragic and destructive consequences of war. The north portal statue of a smiling angel—which was decapitated by a burning scaffolding beam during a fire—became the symbol of not only the war torn cathedral but eventually the whole city of Reims. The press dubbed the statue the “Smile of Reims” or “Smiling Angel.” In 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and his wife visited the ruined cathedral. A few years later, the cathedral—along with the palace of Fontainebleau and the château de Versailles—received a million dollar donation from John D. Rockefeller, to assist in their restoration. Using original fragments and a casting preserved at the museum of French monuments (the former Palais du Trocadéro), this famous figure was reconstructed after the war and was returned to its place on February 13, 1926.

Contemporary French pastelist Lionel Asselineau saw the potential of the statue with its benign smile directed at its outstretched right hand as a painting subject, adding a small falcon on the wrist. The painting was immediately purchased by a French collector, and then became the publicity poster for the 2011 summer exhibition of the French Pastel Society in St. Florent-le-Vieil on the Loire.

Asselineau, who originally trained as a jeweller and goldsmith, spent 10 years working for famous Parisian jewellers, including Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels, and Tiffany. In 2001 he left Paris and settled in the French countryside to concentrate on his real passions—birds and pastel painting. His success in combining these two interests led him to being invited as 2011 guest artist in St. Florent, where 30 artists had 250 works on display.

By Niall O’Neill

To read more about the French pastel festival, pick up the December 2011 issue of The Pastel Journal on sale here and on newsstands.

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