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His father was an accountant, and came from the neighbouring village of Véronnes. Young Legros frequently visited the farms of his relatives, and the peasants and landscapes of that part of France are the subjects of many of his pictures and etchings. He was sent to the art school at Dijon with a view to qualifying for a trade, and was apprenticed to Maître Nicolardo, house decorator and painter of images. In 1851 Legros left for Paris to take another situation; but passing through Lyon he worked for six months as journeyman wall-painter under the decorator Beuchot, who was painting the chapel of Cardinal Bonald in the cathedral.
In Paris he studied with Cambon, scene-painter and decorator of theatres, an experience which developed a breadth of touch such as Stallfield and Cox picked up in similar circumstances. At this time he attended the drawing-school of Lecoq de Boisbaudran (the "Petite école") where he found himself in sympathy with Jules Dalou and Auguste Rodin. In 1855 Legros attended the evening classes of the École des Beaux Arts, and perhaps gained there his love of drawing from the antique, some of the results of which may be seen in the Print Room of the British Museum.
He sent two portraits to the Paris Salon of 1857: one was rejected, and formed part of the exhibition of protest organized by Bonvin in his studio; the other, which was accepted, was a profile portrait of his father. This work was presented to the museum at Tours by the artist when his friend Cazin was curator. Champfleury saw the work in the Salon, and sought out the artist to enlist him in the small army of so-called "Realists," comprising (round the noisy glory of Courbet) all those who raised protest against the academical trifles of the degenerate Romantics.
In 1859 Legros's L'Angelus was exhibited, the first of those quiet church interiors, with kneeling figures of patient women, by which he is best known as a painter. Ex Voto (1861), a work of great power and insight, now in the museum at Dijon, was received by his friends with enthusiasm, but it only obtained a mention at the Salon. Legros came to England in 1863 and in 1864 married Miss Frances Rosetta Hodgson. At first he lived by his etching and teaching. He then became teacher of etching at the South Kensington School of Art, and in 1876 Slade Professor at University College, London in succession to Sir Edward Poynter.
He was naturalized as a British citizen in 1881, and remained at University College seventeen years. His influence there was exerted to encourage a certain distinction, severity and truth of character in the work of his pupils, with a simple technique and a respect for the traditions of the old masters, until then somewhat foreign to English art. He would draw or paint a torso or a head before the students in an hour or even less, so that the attention of the pupils might not be dulled. As students had been known to take weeks and even months over a single drawing, Legros ordered the positions of the casts in the Antique School to be changed once every week. In the painting school he insisted upon a good outline, preserved by a thin rub in of umber, and then the work was to be finished in a single painting, "premièr coup."
Experiments in all varieties of art work were practised; whenever the professor saw a fine example in the museum, or when a process interested him in a workshop, he never rested until he had mastered the technique and his students were trying their apprentice hands at it. As he had casually picked up the art of etching by watching a comrade in Paris working at a commercial engraving, so he began the making of medals after a walk in the British Museum, studying the masterpieces of Pisanello, and a visit to the Cabinet des Médailles in Paris. Legros, considered the traditional journey to Italy a very important part of artistic training, and in order that his students should have the benefit of such study he devoted a part of his salary to augment the income available for a travelling studentship. His later works, after he resigned his professorship in 1892, were more in the free and ardent manner of his early days—imaginative landscapes, castles in Spain, and farms in Burgundy, etchings like the series of The Triumph of Death, and the sculptured fountains for the gardens of the Duke of Portland at Welbeck Abbey.
Pictures, drawings and etchings by Legros, besides those already mentioned, may be seen in the following galleries and museums:
- "Amende Honorable," "Dead Christ," bronzes, medals and twenty-two drawings, in the Luxembourg, Paris
- "Landscape," "Study of a Head," and portraits of Browning, Burne-Jones, Cassel, Huxley and Marshall, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Kensington
- "Femmes en prière" (Tate, London)
- "The Tinker," and six other works from the lonides Collection, bequeathed to South Kensington
- "Christening," "Barricade," "The Poor at Meat," two portraits and several drawings and etchings, collection of Lord Carlisle
- "Two Priests at the Organ," "Landscape" and etchings, collection of Rev. Stopford Brooke
- "Head of a Priest," collection of Mr Vereker Hamilton
- "The Weed-burner," some sculpture and a large collection of etchings and drawings, Mr Guy Knowles
- "Psyche," collection of Mr L W Hudson
- "Snow Scene," collection of George Frederic Watts RA
- thirty-five drawings and etchings, the Print Room, British Museum
- "Jacob's Dream" and twelve drawings of the antique, Cambridge
- "Saint Jerome," two studies of heads and some drawings, Manchester
- "The Pilgrimage" and "Study made before the Class" (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)
- "Study of Heads," Peel Pan Museum, Salford.
"Portrait of Cardinal With Patron Saint"(oil painting),Snite Art Museum,Notre Dame,Indiana See Dr Hans W Singer, "Alphonse Legros," Die graphischen Künste (1898); Léonce Bénédite, "Alphonse Legros," Revue d'an (Paris, 1900); Cosmo Monkhouse, 'Professor Legros', Magazine of Art (1882).
- Legros, Alphonse in: L. Forrer: Biographical Dictionary of Medallists, Volume III, London 1907, p. 375-378.
- "Legros, Alphonse". Who's Who: p. 1193. 1911.
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- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Legros, Alphonse". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.