Croatian master painter Vlaho Bukovac (1855-1922) is well-known artist in Central Europe. He was one of the founders of a modern, Western tradition of painting in that region in the late 19th century. Trained in Paris at a time when Impressionism was catching the public imagination, he painted grand literary and religious scenes, nudes and portraits. Overcoming his initial poverty, he was soon successful, and gained a high reputation in Paris. Bukovac learnt English when living in America in his early teens, and he first visited England aged 16, when he docked in Liverpool on board a merchant ship. From the mid-1880s to the First World War, he regularly came to England, where many of his most popular pictures were imported by the London dealers, Vicars Bros.
They bought his Salon exhibit The White Slave in 1884 and showed it in London, describing it as the picture which created so great a sensation in Paris last season. They charged a shilling admission to see the painting in the red velvet splendour of their basement room in the gallery just off Piccadilly, and many were happy to pay.
Vicars subsequently sold The White Slave to the collector, philanthropist and industrial magnate Samson Fox of Harrogate (a forbear of the Fox acting family). He was to acquire many more works by Bukovac, and together with his friend and fellow industrialist Richard LeDoux of Liverpool, became one of Bukovacs most significant patrons. The painter came often to England from Paris to stay with the two families, and was accepted into their social circle. Through them further commissions followed and in the closing years of the century he enjoyed considerable public success. Bukovac’s portraits of them reveal him at his best, as a sensitive and technically accomplished artist.
Richard LeDoux was the Liverpool director of the firm Suter, Hartmann & Co., which made composition for ships’ keels. Fox and LeDoux families seem to have enjoyed a friendly rivalry competing for Bukovac’s pictures. A photograph of the music-room at ‘Marlfield’, LeDoux’s villa in West Derby, taken in 1903 shows Bukovac’s ‘The Bathers’, painted in Zagreb in 1899.
Bukovac enjoyed a close friendship with LeDoux’s wife Laura, of whom he painted at least four separate portraits. The most important of them is this full-length portrait (200x110cm) in the Walker Art Gallery’s collection, which was exhibited in the Walker in 1892 and at the Paris Salon the following year.
Vlaho Bukovac was the subject of an exhibition, Searching for Blaise, Vlaho Bukovac and his Northern Patrons, which took place at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate and Bonhams, London, in 2005 and 2006. In 2009/10 Gemeentemuseum in Den Haag, Holland staged a major retrospective exhibition “Vlaho Bukovac- A Cosmopolitan Croatian”.