Khalil Saleeby

Khalil Saleeby


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From Btalloun to Edinburgh

Khalil Saleeby  (12 March 1870 – 7 July 1928) Born in Btalloun, in the district of Aley, Khalil Saleeby is considered the founder of modern Lebanese art . He was the only child of Makhoul and Saada Saleeby. As a child, Saleeby started drawing with the heads of matchsticks before graduating to charcoal and ink. After completing his elementary studies in the village school, Saleeby traveled to Beirut in 1881 to continue his schooling with American and British missionaries. Later, in 1886, he enrolled in the Syrian Protestant College (now AUB), a notable accomplishment at the time. Saleeby remained in Beirut until 1890.

Unlike the majority of the region’s artists who pursued their artistic aspirations in Rome or Paris, Saleeby chose Edinburgh, where a cousin of his lived. There, Saleeby met renowned American painter John Singer Sargent (1856– 1925), who had a profound impact on the young artist.

With Sargent’s encouragement, Saleeby traveled to Philadelphia, where he met his future wife and muse, the American Carrie Aude. After their marriage, the couple lived in Edinburgh, Paris, and London before returning to Beirut in 1900.

His marriage, however, was not without controversy. On 3 July, 1897, the Atlanta Constitution Newspaper reported:


Chattanooga Stenographer Weds a Syrian Artist Several Years Ago

“The many friends of the erstwhile Miss Carrie Erd, the chief stenographer of C.L. Loop, of the Southern Express Company, in this city, were genuinely surprised today when Miss Erd announced that she had been married for three years to Khalil Saleeby, a Syrian artist who came to this city several years ago and remained here until 1894.

“At that time he announced that he was going to Paris, France, to pursue his art studies. It was known that he and Miss Erd were great friends, but no one suspected the truth, and so faithfully did she keep her secret that not even her intimates knew of the wedding until she announced it today.”

Artistic Rebel

From his time in Paris, Khalil Saleeby made many important acquaintances, who affected and developed his artwork. He took lessons with the great French painter Pierre Cécile Puvis de Chavanne (1824 – 1898). Known among the painters of the nineteenth century for his individualism, de Chavanne more than once asserted his faith in the work of Saleeby, declaring that he reminded him of the brush of his master Eugène Delacroix. Saleeby met at the same time with the realism of Courbet.

Khalil Saleeby gained considerable notoriety in fin-de-siècle Paris, exhibiting at the Salon des Independents and under the aegis of the renowned Impressionist dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel.
Saleeby also became friends with the great French painter and impressionist Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and was fascinated by Renoir’s luminous brushwork and his languorous nudes. Renoir was also one of the few Impressionist painters interested in portraiture. 

Saleeby, like Renoir, was considered a rebel because he opposed the academic style of his time.

Back to Beirut

In 1898, back in London, Saleeby  remained there until 1900.
Saleeby’s refinement of colors placed him among the great portraitists, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830).

After a decisive decade abroad, Saleeby and his wife returned to Beirut, where he opened a studio on Bliss Street, facing the Main Gate of the Syrian Protestant College (AUB), where he taught painting for many years.


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Prolific Years

The following years were prolific for Saleeby and his work of this period included landscapes, architectural interiors, self-portraits, and figural works. His most substantial work, however, was in the genre of portraiture. Building a reputation as social portraitist, Saleeby further developed a local market forged just two decades earlier by his predecessor, the painter Daoud Corm (1852–1930).
During World War I, Saleeby frequently traveled to Cairo, where he excelled in the representation of the Hall of the Heliopolis Palace. Critics consider these two paintings as the most beautiful masterpieces of the artist.


"A promising young man"


For his retirement and his meditation, Saleeby chose Cliff House as a country home. Perched on a cliff overlooking Btalloun, he enjoyed the softness of its colors. Similarly, he rented a second residence in Souk el-Gharb after the declaration of the State of Greater Lebanon on September 1, 1920, to be closer to his family and friends. And to be able to draw the villagers, he used the house of his cousin, Girgis Saleeby.


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Tragic Ending

At the age of 58, at the height of his glory, this great painter who had toured the artistic world, and achieved international acclaim, met a grim fate … Accompanied by his wife, returning from the beach, the evening of Saturday, July 7, 1928, they were murdered outside the AUB, by the men of his village.
Some accounts say they were ambushed and decapitated; others say they were hanged. The cause of the dispute was a conflict over the right to use a water source in Btalloun.
Beirut’s newspapers covered the murder trial obsessively for months.

Saleeby, like Renoir, was considered a rebel and revolutionary because he opposed the academic style of his time. His revolution was a great belief in the future of Lebanese art. He is recognized as the father of the Lebanese artistic renaissance, which appeared in the first half of the twentieth century. Among his disciples Caesar Gemayel (1898-1958) and Omar Onsi (1901-1969), became great Impressionist painters.

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Heather & Sami Eljurdi

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