Regis Gignoux – The Early Years

Matthew Wilson, Portrait of the Artist Regis Gignoux, oil on canvas, 30×25 inches, Private Collection

Marie-Francois Regis Gignoux was born in 1814 in Lyon, the youngest of the eight children of Swiss trader Jean-Antoine Gignoux and Gabrielle Ribollet. His granddaughter, the Marquese Bertha d’Oncieu, remembered being told that when Regis was a boy “his copybooks were full of drawings” and despite family reservations, he embarked on an art education, first at Lyon’s Académie de St Pierre and then at Fribourg, Switzerland.

In 1835 Regis was awarded an annual stipend to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he was taught by the contemporary history painters Horace Vernet (1789-1863) and Paul Delaroche (1797-1856). It was the latter who encouraged him to specialise in landscape painting. After seeing some sketches the young artist had made during a summer excursion to Switzerland, he advised: “You are strong here; be a landscape painter.”

Emigration to America

Regis’s education at the Beaux-Arts was cut short by his emigration to America in 1840.  Bertha explains that his reason for leaving France was not related to his artistic ambitions, but to romance:

He was still very young when his brother Claude came over from America with his young wife (Harriet Christmas), and her sister Elizabeth. Two years later, Regis wrote to his brother asking if there was any chance of his marrying Elizabeth – and as there was, he crossed on a sailing vessel to New York and married my grandmother, still intending to complete his studies in Paris. My great grandfather Christmas begged him to stay, and offered him a house in Brooklyn.¹

A family story relates that the young Regis first fell for his sister-in-law during a game of hide-and-seek at the Louvre, when she visited Paris with Claude and Harriet. This sketch below found among Gignoux family papers shows the waves of immigration of the extended family from Europe to America, including the Christmas family in 1820 and Regis’s older brother Claude in 1832.

Departs de nos Ancetres pour les Etats Unis d'Amerique
Drawing showing the waves of immigration to America of the Christmas, Messenger, Gignoux and Huffer families. Source: Gignoux family papers

Once married and settled in Brooklyn, Regis set about establishing himself as an artist within the local Brooklyn and New York community. By the time he returned to France in 1869 (29 years later), he was a prominent member of the Hudson River School with works in important private collections and had distinguished himself as one of the key figures in the development of the artistic scene in Brooklyn.

Aside from his activities within the visual arts, Regis was also an abolitionist and a dedicated fund raiser for the Sanitary Commission, a private relief agency created by federal legislation, to support sick and wounded soldiers of the Union Army.

Writing in 1867, art historian Henry T. Tuckerman said of the artist:

If collected, the works of this indefatigable and accomplished artist, besides illustrating many foreign scenes, would be found to include the most complete and varied, as well as faithful delineations of the characteristics of American scenery produced by a foreign pencil.²


¹Gignoux family papers: letter from La Marquise D’Oncieu La Bétie to Mr. Cadbury

²Tuckerman, p.510



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