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Hélène Feillet (1812-1889), as painted by her sister Blanche. Image by TRAILERS MUSEUM, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Hélène (1812-1889) and Blanche (1815-1886) Feillet were artists and lithographers of some renown in the mid-19th century. Although born in Paris, they had strong connections to Iparralde, where they lived (in Biarritz) from 1834 on. And they are best known for their many portrayals of the Basque people and landscape in the form of lithographs, watercolors, oil paintings, drawings, and sketches. Their principal focus of interest was the Basque coastline, from Baiona in Lapurdi to Bermeo in Bizkaia, by way of the many fishing towns and villages along the way.

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“Pêcheuses de St-Jean-de-Luz” (Fisherwomen of Donibane Lohizune), by Hélène Feillet. Part of the Fonds Ancely of the City library of Toulouse. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

They were the daughters of a famous lithographer, Pierre Jacques Feillet (1794-1855), who was also head of the School of Drawing and Painting in Baiona from 1844 until his death – on which Blanche took over the same position. Continuing with their father’s specialty, they gained particular fame as lithographers in their representations of the Basque Country, embracing the romanticist tendencies of the age in their lithographs and prints.

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“Costumes basques” (Basque dress) by Hélène Feillet. Part of the Fonds Ancely of the City library of Toulouse. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1844 Blanche married Charles-Henri Hennebutte, who ran a printing company in Baiona. His company would later publish well-known guides to the Basque Country, such as Guide du voyageur de Bayonne à St Sébastien and Description des environs de Bayonne et de Saint-Sébastien (France et Espagne: Album des deux frontières), beautifully illustrated by the Feillet sisters. Hélène also exhibited her work in both Paris and London.

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“Entrée du duc de Bayonne en 1839” (Entrance of the Duke of Baiona in 1839) by Hélène Feillet. A work commissioned by the French Ministry of the Interior. Image by Léna, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Their art stands as a remarkable testament of the time and place in which they lived and worked, and serves as an invaluable resource for capturing the Basque Country on the cusp of major social change in the mid- and late-19th century.