Léo Lelée - Illustrating Arlesian traditions by Janice Lert

Leo Lelee 2No one, not even Vincent Van Gogh, has ever captured in pictures the soul of the inhabitants of the region around Arles as well as Léo Lelée. And Lelée was not even a provençal! He was born Léopold Albert Lelée on December 13, 1872 in Chemazé (Mayenne). His father was a teacher and after graduating from the lycée in Laval and winning a drawing competition, he continued his studies in Paris thanks to a scholarship offered by the Mayenne general counsel.


Leo Lelee 1He won a lot of prizes and, after finishing his studies in 1894 started working for a textile manufacturer in Saint-Quentin, specializing in lace curtains and shawls. But if you have ever had a teacher in your family, you know that it is easy to "catch the bug" and Léo soon started teaching in Roubaix at the National School of Industrial Arts. However he needed to liberate his talent and so moved to Paris where he could share a studio with other artists and start to work as an illustrator.



This was the period when the style known as Art Nouveau reached its peak. It was basically a new style of decoration, involving curved lines and flowers, which appeared in stained-glass windows, ceramic tiles, etc. on the façades of houses. But this style lent itself beautifully to a new "rage" at the time: postcards. Lelée realized the potential of this way of sending short messages, which we could compare to "Facebook" or "Twitter" today. During his career he designed 30,000 postcards of different types: some with flowers, beautiful girls with flowing hair, others representing different times of day or different seasons, still others representing fictional characters or Biblical stories. The possibilities of subjects were practically unlimited, but whatever the subject, Lelée’s style was easy to recognize with a decoration of swirls and arabesques.


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However Lelée’s life was to take a new turn when he met the Arlesian sculptor Gaston de Luppé at a ball in Paris. Luppé invited Léo to come and visit him in Arles, and Léo, only too happy to accept, arrived on March 3, 1902. He never left. He was immediately inspired by the landscapes and people of Provence, and opened a shop on the Rond-Point des Arènes, where Luppé’s own residence was located. And he fell in love with a true arlésienne, Rosa Tourel. The couple were married on January 13, 1903. Lelée had two daughters of which the elder, born in 1904, was named Mireille, proof if need be that Lelée was caught up in the Félibrige movement.


For Lelée success was immediate: his gallery- studio saw editors from all over Europe competing for his illustrations, but stories of Provence and Camargue were his favorites. And of course he could not help but run into Frédéric Mistral, the leader of the Félibres, who immediately saw his potential.


The Félibrige movement was a nostalgic attempt to maintain and recreate the traditions of Provence which were disappearing at the beginning of the 20th century with the Industrial Revolution. Mistral needed someone who could illustrate the Arlesian women’s dress costume in a didactic way so that his contemporaries would know exactly how to fold their shawls and do up their hair.


Mistral put Lelée in charge of organizing the first "Festo Vierginenco", the ceremonies, still organized today, when young adolescent women vow to “wear the ribbon”, that is, to dress in traditional Arlesian dress and do up their hair in a knot with a silk velvet ribbon. Believe it or not, these ceremonies have become more and more popular in recent years...


Leo Lelee 3Lelée was mobilized during WWI and wounded. While recovering he spent his time drawing post cards that he donated to the Red Cross to be sold. After the war he moved to Fontvieille with his family and continued working and participating in exhibitions including one in Paris in 1930 where he won a gold medal. His posters were a "must" for any event taking place in Arles, and he also designed a whole series of posters for the PLM (Paris-Lyon-Marseille) railroad company which was trying to promote tourism, particularly after paid vacations were voted by the French Parliament in the 1930s.


He also played an important role in organizing charity events and festivities in Fontvieille, and his house on the main square was a meeting place for visitors and dignitaries. Alphonse Daudet had made Fontvieille famous with his book of short stories Lettres de Mon Moulin and there were a number of old windmills abandoned on the hills above the town. Lelée founded an association, the Société des Amis des Moulins, to restore one of these mills, the Moulin Saint Pierre, which has since become known as the Moulin Daudet and visited by thousands of school children. His elegant Arlesian ladies dancing the farandole soon decorated the ballroom of the Fontvieille town hall. He later became an administrator of the Museon Arlaten, the ethnographical museum in Arles to which he donated part of his collection of 1600 works (the others were donated to the museum in Laval, Mayenne, where he was born).


Leo’s wife Rosa died in 1942 and Leo followed on June 26, 1947, after having been bitten by a dog. His legacy includes hundreds of drawings and watercolors, some composed of just a few expressive lines, others with bright sunny colors, proving his love and pride of his adopted homeland, Provence.