Léon Frédéric. Part 2. The Symbolist painter

Having looked at his Realism/Naturalism works in my previous blog, in this, the second of my blogs about the nineteenth century Belgian artist, Léon Frédéric, I want to concentrate on his work as a Symbolist painter.

Allegory of the Night by Léon Frédéric

Léon Frédéric has been designated as a Symbolist painter and yet when I look at all his work only some of it seems to fall into that category, whilst other of his paintings tended towards realism, but today it is all about his Symbolist art. I think probably the best way of starting the discussion is to specify what Symbolism means as far as art is concerned. Symbolism was a late nineteenth century anti-materialist and anti-rationalist movement. It was a type of art which rejected the authentic representation of the natural world, as seen in impressionism, realism, and naturalism, which was spurned in favour of imaginary dream worlds in which we may see strange figures from literature, the bible, and Greek mythology. It was art which focused upon the erotic and mystical with diverse subjects such as love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire. It was the aim of Symbolist painters to give visual articulation to emotional happenings. Symbolism was an art in which there was an idea that another world lies beyond the world of appearances.

Jean Moréas by Antonio de La Gandara

The Greek-born poet, essayist and art critic, Jean Moréas published The Symbolist Manifesto in the French newspaper Le Figaro on September 18th 1886. It described a new literary movement, and it proclaimed the name of Symbolism as not just the fitting terminology for that movement, but one that echoed how imaginative minds manage the work. It was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites in England and Symbolist art became very popular throughout Europe. The leading protagonists in France were Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes and Odile Redon. In Germany it was the artwork of Franz Stuck and Max Klinger and in Austria at the forefront of Symbolist art was Gustav Klimt and Alfred Kubin and in Frédéric’s homeland Belgium, Fernand Khnopff, James Ensor were the leading exponents of Symbolism art.

Studio Interior by Léon Frédéric (1882)

Frédéric completed his extraordinary symbolist painting, Studio Interior in 1882,  which appears to be a fantasy self-portrait depicting the artist naked with a skeleton on his lap. The latter has been dressed up in undergarments with a long starry veil over them. His palette and brushes are at the lower right, and his clothes – including a top hat – are draped on chairs.

Ohara Museum of Art (Kurashiki, Japan)

Frédéric’s works from the early 1890’s concentrated almost exclusively on symbolist subjects. His artwork was lauded by his fellow Belgian artist, Fernand Khnopff in The Studio, the Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art magazine which was published in London. More of Frédéric’s work was talked about in many foreign journals such as the Austrian Ver Sacrum, the official magazine of the Vienna Secession and it was this wide coverage which brought Frédéric and his art to the fore and became internationally recognised. His work was exhibited in Paris, Venice and Munich. Léon Frédéric’s Symbolist artworks were both large and spectacular. One example of this is in the Ohara Museum of Art in Kurashiki, Japan.

All Things Die, But All Will Be Resurrected through God’s Love by Léon Frédéric

It is entitled All Things Die, But All Will Be Resurrected through God’s Love. It is a massive work of art measuring 161 x 1100cms (5ft 3 x 36 feet). It is a polyptych, a painting which is divided into sections, or panels or to be more precise, a heptaptych (or septych) one which is divided into seven panels. It is incredibly detailed and took Frédéric twenty-five years to complete having started it in 1893, it was not completed until 1918. It is a work of great beauty and its potency is overpowering. The multi-depiction is made up of Biblical tales and it reads from left to right.

The three panels on the left tell how God is angry with how he is unhappy at how mankind has been acting and he is sends down fire and brimstone to punish the people. The end result, as depicted, is that the people were burnt by the fires and crushed into rocks and all eventually die.

In the fourth (middle panel) there is a change of mood and we see a depiction of a white dove, which is a symbol of a messenger from God, arriving on the scene bearing good news, that God forgives and through his love,  humanity will be revived.

The three panels to the right depict the result of his forgiveness. Happy people congregate under a double rainbow. It is an amazing work with countless figures, each with their own expressions. It was obviously a time-consuming project and highlights the love Frédéric had for this work and his Christian beliefs. Take time to study each panel. Look at all the different expressions on the faces of the people. Look at the backgrounds of each panel. It is amazing what you discover.

One sad note with regards the painting is connected with the centre panel. During the time Frédéric was painting this work, World War I had begun in which he lost his daughter Gabrielle. In the foreground of the middle panel there are five young girls wearing floral garlands on their heads. It is believed that the girl in the centre of this group was a portrait of his daughter who died and to the bottom left of the panel (although illegible in this attached picture) Frédéric has written:

“…a nohe bien ainee fille Gabrielle (To my dear daughter, Gabrielle)…”

and he has added his own signature.

So, what does the painting symbolise? It is thought that Frédéric intention was to depict the foolishness of wars and the sorrow it brings, not just to the victims but their loved ones as seen in the left-hand panels. However, he wants there to be some good for those victims including his daughter to revive in the land of God in the right half of the painting.

Self Portrait by Torajiro Kojima

The painting was bought by Torajiro Kojima following his visit to Frédéric’s Studio in 1923. He had originally seen the work at an exhibition in Antwerp. Torajiro was a Japanese artist who followed the traditions of the Impressionists. He studied at the University of Fine Arts and Music in Tokyo, and in 1908 went to Paris to continue his studies. In 1909 he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium, where he trained in Luminism. From 1920 onwards, after a decade back in Japan, he travelled to Europe several times at the request of Magosaburo Ohara, his patron and a Japanese businessman and philanthropist who founded the Ōhara Art Museum with the intention of filling it with Western art by Emile Claus, Jean-Joseph Delvin, Monet, Matisse, Albert Marquet and sculptures by Rodin, and many others. The museum, which opened in 1929, was the first one in Japan to house a large collection of modern Western art.  The polyptych painting by Frédéric was Torajiro Kojima’s last purchase in Europe. It is believed that this seven-panel painting became a determining factor for the width of the Ohara Museum of Art during the time of the design phase.

Les âges de l’ouvrier [The Ages of the Worker] by Léon Frédéric

The Musée d’Orsay has, within its collection, a triptych by Lé Frédéric entitled Les âges de l’ouvrier [The Ages of the Worker], which he completed around 1897. It is a painting packed with crowds of people, all of whom are displaying a multitude of dramatic, yet meaningful gestures.

Left-hand panel

The left-hand panel depicts the men engaged in heavy labour. The white-haired man with the white apron is almost kneeling on the floor. Is he collecting rubble as behind him stands a young boy with a wicker basket on his back, possibly waiting to haul away the stones? Look at the men in the background helping each other to carry the large baulks of timber. Does this not remind you of a crucifixion scene with the erection of the crosses in a religious painting?  Is this symbolic of man’s struggle?

Right-hand panel

The right-hand panel in contrast is populated by the women who are nursing their babies. They look very concerned and seem not to be happy with their lot in life. Again, thinking of religious connotations does this depiction remind you of religious depictions of the Virgin and Child ?

Centre panel

In between these two panels is the centre panel which is all about childhood and youth. In the front there is a group of boys playing cards while we observe a parade of youngsters coming out of school or young men leaving their workshops or worksites. Some of the young girls are carrying food whilst others are eating theirs. Look closely at the centre background of this centre panel and you will catch a glimpse of a funeral procession moving away and it is a reminder of the inevitability of death. The movement of the cortege is away from us which is in direct contrast to all the workers and school children that move towards the viewer.

Aurora by Léon Frédéric

Another of Léon Frédéric’s famed Symbolism paintings is entitled Aurora often referred to as ‘L’Aube arrachant les Ténèbres (Dawn tearing away the Darkness) which he completed in the early 1890’s. It is a painting, part Symbolism and part Neo-Classicism. Aurora is the Greek goddess of dawn and she was the sister of the sun-god Helios. Her normal depiction features her scattering flowers from her four-horse chariot but in this depiction by Frédéric we see her almost naked, her body partly covered with a wind-blown diaphanous black veil which covers half her face. She is surrounded by a series of moons, suns and an aureole of stars. We see her materialising from banks of clouds and sunbeams, she stands before us, separating the morning from the night. She is the true goddess of dawn. Frédéric has heightened the atmosphere of his depiction by using lighter, silvery-blue colours to paint a cosmic, supernatural motif. There is no doubt the depiction is both mesmerising and challenging.

Le Ruisseau (The Torrent) by Léon Frédéric

Around the same time that Frédéric completed Aurora he also finished what many consider to be his greatest Symbolist work, the giant triptych entitled Le Ruisseau (The Stream), which he dedicated to Beethoven. It was a controversial painting full of naked children and swans. Observers of the work were either impressed or upset by what they saw. Although painted in a photorealist style the meaning of the work was incomprehensible.

Centre panel (detail) of Le ruisseau (The torrent) by Léon Frédéric

Of all Léon Frédéric’s paintings my favourite is his 1882 triptych entitled The Holy Trinity. The frames of the three paintings are not joined together but the three are looked upon as companion pieces. As I said in the previous blog, in around 1882. Frédéric went to live in the small southern Belgium village of Nafraiture, which was close to the French border and over the next forty years he was to visit the village on numerous occasions and paint portraits of the inhabitants as well as landscapes of the outlying areas.

Holy Trinity Triptych by Léon Frédéric (1882)

Frédéric gave his Holy Family triptych, which he completed in 1882, to the village. One would have thought that the inhabitants of the village would be delighted to have his three paintings displayed in the charming little village church but that was not the case. The paintings were placed out of sight in the church rectory. The reason for the parishoners’ reluctance to openly exhibit the works of art was that the faces depicted in the paintings were that of some of the local people, who were less than pleased with their depictions. However Cardinal Mercier, an admirer of the works of Frédéric, had them removed from the rectory and placed on the interior walls of the church itself. They are now the centrepieces of the church of Nafraiture and are a testament to the artist Léon Frédéric’s love for the village.

The left-hand panel of The Holy Trinity triptych – God the Father

The painting on the left of the trio depicts the omnipotence of God the Father.

The centre panel of the Holy Trinity – Jesus Christ, God the Son

The painting which is positioned in the middle of the triptych is a depiction of God the Son, Jesus Christ. His face is depicted on a white shroud held aloft by two angel-like figures as they walk through a field of flowers. In the background we can see a field being ploughed and to the right we see a procession of people walking along a path, following the angels. Look at the bottom foreground on the right and you will see a pair of snakes

Close-up of Christ’s face

The depiction of Jesus Christ’s face is an amazing work of art which has been brought back to life after seven moths of restoration. It is a face covered in blood from the crown of thorns. The blood runs down the white cloth below the face. The forehead of Christ is wrinkled with pain and his eyes have taken on a blank look due to his intense suffering. It is such a heart-rending depiction.

The Holy Spirit

The final painting which is usually positioned on the right of the trio depicts the Holy Spirit.

In September 2017 the three works were taken down from the walls of the church so that they could be restored. The restoration took seven months to complete. It was a difficult job with the frames having been attacked by vermin and had to be repaired and the canvases re-stretched.

The restorer and the church curator explains what else had to be achieved:

“…We started with a clean-up, and we realized at that point the condition of the varnish, which is not homogeneous. The details and the touch of the artist were no longer so noticeable, because of the yellowing. It was due to the restoration varnish laid about fifty years ago, not to the painting. There were no chemicals used during our restoration…”

The tears

The clarity of the newly restored paintings is quite amazing. Look at the face of the Holy Spirit. Look at the astounding way the artist has depicted the tears. After the restoration, you can see much better the tears that flow from the eyes. The colours are lighter, brighter.

The village church of Nafraiture

The triptych of the Holy Trinity has been exhibited all over the world, but it has always returned home to the village church at Nafraiture.

Léon Frédéric died in the Belgian town of Schaarbeek on January 27th 1940 aged 83.

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

2 thoughts on “Léon Frédéric. Part 2. The Symbolist painter”

  1. Thank you so much for this… I really like the way you explain things so clearly for those of us who do not have an academic background in art.

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