A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Tollet Portrait
of Fr Jean-Claude Colin

by Fr Ron Nissen

Tony (Jean Jules Antoine) Tollet was born on 6 November 1857 at 19 rue Bourgelat in the district of Ainay in Lyons, France. When he was young he was immobilised by sickness, and it was at this time that he began to learn to draw. It is recorded that when he was seven, he gave his father a beautifully sketched Head of Romulus in black pencil, and he was to become one of the most prominent French portrait artists of his era.

Tony Tollet in 1898

He entered the School of Fine Arts (École des Beaux-Arts) in Lyons in 1873. Jean-Baptiste Danguin taught him in the live model class and Michel Dumas in the painting class.

In 1879, he won the Paris Prize, which enabled him to spend several years at the Paris School of Fine Arts in the studios of such painters as Alexandre Cabanel, Luc-Olivier Merson and Albert Maignan. He became close friends with members of the Flandrin family, a number of whom were notable painters.

His painting Themistocles at the Home of Admetus gained him the second Grand Prix of Rome. This painting was acquired by the Rhône prefecture in 1885.

He returned to Lyons in 1889 with his sick mother and settled there permanently. He married Jeanne Pailleux in 1890. They had six children and twenty-eight grandchildren.

Tollet painted many portraits of significant people in Lyons society. He had a passion for teaching and taught drawing first at the municipal school of Guillotière, then at the small college where his students included his daughter, Marie-Louise Chabert-Des-Nots. His large studio on rue Bourgelat, where he gave classes twice a week, became a meeting place for artists. He painted until 1942, when he was 85 years old.

He held many distinguished positions in the world of art in Lyons and beyond and he won many awards, including the Legion of Honour in 1925. He died on 25 January 1953 and rue Tony-Tollet in Lyons is named in his honour.

Tollet’s portrait of
Venerable Jean-Claude Colin

In the mid 1920s, the Marists of the Fourvière community in Lyons asked Tollet to produce a portrait of their Founder based on photographs taken during the 1866 Society of Mary General Chapter.

In the portrait, Tollet removed the Fr Colin’s spectacles and replaced the crucifix in one of the original photographs with a statuette of Our Lady of Victories.

A contemporary commentator observed how Tollet had given “dignity, height and a certain nobility” to his subject, which perhaps could have been more “human and paternal. The technique is excellent,” he said, “but leads one to think more of a Vicar-General of Lyons than the humble Founder of the Marists.”

A second portrait was also commissioned and sent to the Marist General House in Rome. Fr Ernest Rieu was the Superior-General. However, since his resignation through ill-health in 1947, this painting has never been seen.

The original portrait first hung at the Marist house of Fourvière and was later transferred to La Neylière, where Fr Colin is entombed. In 2010, it was noticed lying, dust-covered, against a wall in a corner of the Colin Museum at La Neylière. In 2012 the canvas was cleaned and carefully photographed. Images have since been widely circulated throughout the Marist world.

Since renovations at La Neylière in 2015, the portrait has hung in Fr Colin’s study.

Artiste, Jacqueline Tollet-Loeb, wrote:

When Tony Tollet died in 1953, people said:
Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls, the bell for Tollet tolls.

Previously, referring to his model, they had said:
Don’t ask for whom the belle toils, the belle for Tollet toils.

Later, when his model died, they said: Don’t ask for whom bell tolls; the bell for the belle who for Tollet toiled tolls.

After his death, where he used to work, a sign read:
‘Studio of Tollet, to let.’  -- that's Tollet not Toilet nor Toilette, a subject which, however favoured by many painters, he avoided studiously!  

“Here Tony Tollet was born and lived for 96 years. (He was) President of the Lyons Academy of Sciences, Humanities and Arts (and a) famous portrait artist
1857 - 1953”

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