Helping hand


The Helping Hand

Artist: Emile Renouf (1845-1894)

Emile Renouf’s painting, “Un Coup de Main” (“The Helping Hand”), is oil on canvas 60 by 89 inches, signed and dated 1881.For more than 100 years, Renouf’s greatest work captivated visitors to Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Collection with its charming subject: the silent concord between an aging fisherman and his young helper, the skillful handling of its composition and detail, and its sheer size (5 by 7 feet). The painting became an icon of French 19th-century academic art in the nation’s capital as well as across the nation, primarily through the widespread distribution of an engraving after the painting, which popularly hung in American classrooms.

After its sale in 1988, the painting was returned on loan to Washington to hang once again in the Grand Salon of the Renwick Gallery — the first location of the Corcoran Gallery of Art — as part of a special anniversary exhibition. There, its overwhelming appeal to viewing audiences was revived and “The Helping Hand,” once again won the hearts of visitors.The appeal of “The Helping Hand” extends back to its native shores, where it was painted in Paris in 1881. It was Renouf’s primary submission to the Paris salon that year. The painting’s success was immediate, as documented by the many unanimously positive opinions published by contemporary French art critics, which elevated an already established Renouf to greater heights within the notoriously discerning Parisian art establishment.

“The Helping Hand” was sold that same year, on the wave of its success at the Paris Salon, to an American, William Schaus, of New York, beginning its American “odyssey.” The painting’s second owner was another New Yorker, George I. Seney. Edward Strahan, in his book, Art Treasures of America, as “a philanthropist and a liberal art-patron...[with a] very select gallery.”“The Helping Hand” was purchased from the Seney sale by The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. The Corcoran Gallery, founded by the financier, William W. Corcoran (1798-1888), was at the time of the Seney sale, an aggressive buyer of top European and American paintings. After its purchase, “The Helping Hand” was hung at the Corcoran Collection’s first gallery, a mansion at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street, built between 1859–71 and now named after its architect, James Renwick. Although “The Helping Hand” was transferred to the Corcoran’s second and larger location on New York Avenue, completed in 1897, The Helping Hand was returned to its original Renwick Gallery location in 1971 on the occasion of its restoration to its former Second Empire elegance.

For the subject of “The Helping Hand,” Renouf chose an old weather-worn fisherman seated with a young girl, perhaps his daughter or grand-daughter, in a fishing boat heaped with tarpaulin, fishing nets, and line. Together they row silently but in harmony with a single oar through calm waters in a placid sea. There is something very touching in the expression of the face of the old man and charming about the attitude of the little lass. The theme of the sea and the people who wrested their livelihood from it provided one of the most popular themes for artists of the late nineteenth century.

Even more important to the fame of “The Helping Hand” is the fact that it was widely reproduced. Often included as one of the few works illustrated in catalogues of the Corcoran’s permanent collection, it appeared also in many popular publications — on the cover of church bulletins and literary periodicals, in travel articles about Washington, in textbooks, on the walls of grammar schools, in hospital corridors, and even adapted for use in political cartoons.

Photo credit: Charlie Hoyer