Louis Georges Eléonor Roy was born in Poligny, in the foothills of the Alps, on July 23, 1862. His father, Jean-Eléonor, was 42; his mother, Anne-Baptiste Boissenin, was 37. Louis was his parents’ only child. Jean-Eléonor Roy had been born in the village of Miéry, in the valley just south of Poligny. Jean came from a family of farmers in a village filled with relatives—the town records are replete with Roys. Jean-Eléonor went to Paris as a young man and found work as a domestic servant probably around 1840. In Paris he met Anne-Baptiste Boissenin, who had been born in Villersexel, a small town about 60 miles north of Poligny. Anne-Baptiste’s parents were also farmers. Roy and Boissenin, whenever they met, waited to marry until they had saved enough money to purchase a building on one of the main streets of Poligny. Number 15, Grande Rue, had an apartment above and a storefront at the street level—a store that the couple made into a grocery. Here their son Louis grew up.
All of that information I gleaned from searching the online archives of the administrative department of the Jura. In France a département is something like a county in the U.S.; for our purposes, the importance of a département is that it maintains local archives: records of births, marriages, divorces, and deaths; property transactions; photographs of local sites; school yearbooks--you can unearth all sorts of things. And in France, these records are steadily being digitized. Twenty years ago, the only way for me to have learned that Louis Roy's parents had both been domestic servants in Paris would have been to find a flight that would get me as close as possible to Poligny, then rent a car and drive to the departmental archives that hold Poligny's records. There, I would have paged through finding aids until I reached the page for 1862 births and listed the index number for its register. I would have filled out the call number for the register and waited while an archivist went deep into the stacks to pull it out and bring it to me.
And then I would have repeated the same exercise to find out Roy's parents' marriage records, birth records, and death records. It would have taken me, likely, several days. Although I would have enjoyed the time exploring the village and finding the best spot for my morning tea and tartine, I can taste the urgency and anxiety I would have felt as I negotiated the culture of the local archives--its opening hours, identifying the archivist most likely to be helpful, working my way around the initial denials that there would be any information on the topic I was looking for.
Instead, I spent an afternoon online. The Archives de Jura--the Jura is the name of Poligny's département--have digitized the état civil (the public records) from 1802-1942, military enlistments from 1867-1921, maps, postcards, and so much else. And so I looked for Louis Roy and found his birth certificate:
I was following a trail blazed by the art historian Elisabeth Walter who wrote the only published article devoted to Louis Roy in 1978. Walter had written to the mayor of Poligny to ask him to look for Roy in the Poligny état civil. The mayor had sent her a copy of the birth record, and she had incorporated that information into her brief, 8 page biographical essay. The essay began with her observation that Roy "had been forgotten so profoundly" that in the 1950s one art historian had suggested that the name was merely a pseudonym taken up by another artist. My own search for Louis Roy echoed Walter's: before I procured a copy of her article through interlibrary loan, I had begun to wonder the same thing.
But Walter's clue, buried in her footnotes, sent me to search the now-digitized Archives de Jura, and soon I knew where and when and to whom he was born. I knew that he was a grocer's son from the edge of the Alps. Poligny is perched at the end--or beginning--of the first plateau that leads upwards into the mountains. Shadowed by escarpments that loom over the village, its Grande Rue, where young Louis grew up, ran parallel to the edge of the village. A house built high enough could have a view over the vineyards and farms and forests below.
Louis Roy, like his parents, went to Paris. He may have studied at the National School of Decorative Arts; he may have studied at one of the private academies that sprang up in Paris in the 1880s. He passed the qualifying exam to become a secondary school art teacher on July 22, 1882. The young man was hired to teach at an elite high school, the Lycée Michelet, in the southwestern Paris suburb of Vanves. This much I have pieced together from sources in libraries and archives in France and in the U.S.
Roy disappears from the records between 1882 and 1889; all we know is that, in 1885, he painted this shore scene in Brittany.
Louis Roy, Bord de mer en Bretagne (Brittany Seaside), 1885; pastel; private collection
In order to show up in government records, you have to be born, get married, get divorced, commit a crime, or die. You can be counted in a census—which happened once a decade, and had happened in 1881, the year before Roy came to teach at Vanves. No census was taken in Paris itself until 1926. For Roy to show up in other sorts of records, he would have had to come from a family whose papers someone might have donated to an archive or library, or he would have had to have know someone in a family like that. He wasn’t, and he didn’t. He was a young man from the provinces making his way in the world, the first in his family to attain any level of education.
In 1884, another teacher joined the art faculty at the Lycée Michelet:
Emile Schuffenecker. He and Roy met and worked alongside each other keeping their students in order and, maybe, sharing the occasional cigarette break.
Schuffenecker had known Paul Gauguin since 1872 when both worked for the stock brokerage firm of Paul Bertin. Schuffenecker was a witness to Gauguin’s marriage in 1873. When Paul and Mette Gauguin’s first son was born two years later, they named him Emil; Schuffenecker returned the favor in 1884, naming his firstborn son Paul, and asking Gauguin to stand as his godfather.
In the 1870s, Gauguin and Schuffenecker worked side by side during the day on the stock exchange, and, on evenings and weekends, made the rounds together of the Paris art world. Schuffenecker studied at the Académie Colarossi and under the artist Carolus-Duran. From 1877 through the early 1880s, he regularly exhibited works at the annual Salon des Artistes Français. Gauguin, meanwhile, was becoming more and more interested in art and in painting; the two shared the interest, and the community. By the early 1880s, both left the financial world to support themselves and their families as artists. Schuffenecker had independent means and also arranged to have a steady income by completing the exam necessary to become an art teacher; Gauguin quit without a net.
Between 1884 and 1889, Schuffenecker divided his time between teaching at the Lycée Michelet and painting. The art department at the Lycée Michelet was small, consisting of only a handful of teachers who perforce worked closely together, whether planning lessons, comparing students, or attending faculty meetings. Gauguin, whose marriage was falling apart in these years and who was perennially broke, lived with Schuffenecker and his family for several months in 1885, 1887, and 1888-89.
How at home in the capital, what men of the world must Schuffenecker and Gauguin have seemed to young Louis Roy, who still was learning his way around Paris. Gauguin had been everywhere, seen everything, and spoke multiple languages. Schuffenecker had grown up in the heart of Paris, been at school in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, and lived through his generation’s defining event, the Paris Commune. Both men were married, both had children. Roy, on the other hand, was closer in age to his pupils than he was to Schuffenecker. He was 22 when he met the two older men—men who were still young themselves, but who had whole lifetimes of experience beyond what Louis had encountered. The three men were not contemporaries but, given their common interest in art, and, between Roy and Schuffenecker, their common employment, Roy and Gauguin would almost assuredly have met.
Site of the Académie Colarossi, early 1900s