Jules Breton. Part 3. Rural Life and Religious Ceremonies.

Breton Peasant Woman Holding a Taper by Jules Breton (1869)

Besides his rural works of art, Jules Breton will also be remembered for his religious paintings.  One simple work was his 1869 painting entitled Breton Peasant Woman Holding a Taper, which can be seen at the Brooklyn Museum.  It is an intimate portrayal of an elderly lady in Breton costume.  Jules Breton made the background plain and dark so that her white headdress and the starched folds of her collar stand out.   In one hand she holds the long thin candle whilst the other hand clasps her rosary beads.  France may have been reeling from revolutions and turmoil with even worse to come but Breton was happy to focus on regional dress and religious tradition.  Since 1994, the painting has been housed at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Quimper

The Pardon in Kergoat by Jules Breton (1891).

One of his greatest religious works was his multi-figured depiction entitled The Pardon at the Chapel of Kergoat in Quéméneven.  A pardon occurs on the feast of the patron saint of a church or chapel, at which an indulgence is granted. Hence use of the word “pardon”. Pardons only occur in the traditionally Breton language speaking Western part of Brittany.   This “pardon” at the Chapel of Kergoat was one of the most popular pardons because of the virtues of the waters from the nearby fountain. The Chapelle Notre-Dame de Kergoat is a 16th century chapel in the hamlet Kergoat, in the commune Quéménéven, Finistère, in north-western France. People came from all over Cornouaille, as shown by the presence of people from the Bigouden area.  Jules Breton was moved by the number of beggars and the passion of the pilgrims.  His portrayal of the event lets us imagine the movement of this procession as it goes around the monumental chapel. 

Le pardon de Notre-Dame-des-Portes à Châteauneuf-du-Faou by Paul Sérusier (1894)

He, like many other artists such as Gaugin, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret and the Pont-Aven School painter, Paul Sérusier, depicted similar scenes of devotion.

The Blessing of the Wheats in Artois by Jules Breton (1857)

Another religious procession featured in one of Jules Breton’s paintings.  It was his 1857 work The Blessing of the Wheats in Artois which he presented at the Salon that year and was awarded a second-class medal.  It was also the year that Jean-François Millet had his famous painting, The Gleaners, exhibited at the Salon.  Jules Breton’s painting was bought that year by the French State for the Luxembourg Museum.  The procession we see in the painting is a procession of the Rogations.  Rogation Days are days set aside to observe a change in the seasons. Rogation Days are tied to the spring planting. There is one Major Rogation, which falls on April 25, and three Minor Rogations, which are celebrated on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday immediately before Ascension Thursday.  Around Jules Breton’s village of Courrières, the girls in their communion dresses, the clergy, and the local notables walk the countryside to attract the blessing of heaven to the coming crops. This painting reminds us of the important place of Christianity in French rural life.

Les Premières Communiantes à Courrières by Jules Breton (circa 1860,)

Jules Breton was the self-proclaimed “peasant who paints peasants.”   During his career, he would paint many pictures that focused on the religious traditions of rural communities, especially those in the towns and villages of Brittany and his birthplace and current home, Courrières.   One of the earliest paintings to study the theme of communicants, people who receive or are entitled to receive Communion, was his 1860 work, Les Premières Communiantes à Courrières which hangs in the Musée du Petit Palais, Paris.  This work depicts the ceremony of First Holy Communion being held in the village of Courrières, a ceremony during which a person, around the age of eight, first receives the Eucharist.  The young girls who are about to receive the sacrament usually wear beautiful white dresses.

Les Premières Communiantes à Courrières by Jules Breton (circa 1884,)

In 1884, twenty-four years after Breton completed Les Premières Communiantes à Courrières, he was given a commission by one of his patrons, Samuel Putnam Avery, to complete another work depicting the First Communion ceremony and offered him 50,000 francs for its completion.  He gave the artist freedom to choose a depiction of the ceremony.  Avery was a great supporter and fan of Breton’s work and in a letter from May 4th, 1882, after Breton had accepted the commission, he thanked him saying:

“…I have so much confidence in your genius I am convinced that you will create a masterpiece, and want to leave you free to do what interests you most…”

Breton set to work in the summer of 1883 making numerous sketches for the finished commission.  Avery became impatient as over a year had passed since the commission had been agreed upon and in November Breton wrote once more to Avery saying that the work was nearing completion and that he intended to submit it to the 1884 Salon.  Breton has depicted a much broader view of the Communion ceremony.  The setting is a Spring morning and the mauve lilac is in full bloom.  The “ruralness” of the depiction is enhanced by the inclusion of birds fluttering over the thatched roofs of the whitewashed cottages.  The bright sunlight shines down upon the procession and lights up the virginal white diaphanous veils of the young girls as they slowly walk through the village towards the church of Courrières.  The painting was hailed a great success and the art critic for the Art Journal who wrote about the 1884 Salon said:

“…Les communiantes is perhaps the finest work in the exhibition… In the detail, the characterization, the perfect technique, the harmonious and varied coloration, and above all in the feeling, this picture is especially fine…”

The work was the culmination of numerous sketches that Breton had taken.   

Élodie with a Sunshade, Baie de Douarnenez by Jules Breton (1871),

After the Salon closed, Avery purchased the painting for 50,000 francs, and then promptly sold it to the American art collector, Mary Jane Sexton Morgan, the widow of Charles Morgan, an American railroad and shipping magnate.  She paid $12,000 for the painting. Charles de Kay, a writer on art wrote in the Magazine of Art:

“…What the most fabulous art dealer, what the most self-important artist asked, she paid without wincing…

Mary died in 1885 and the following year at the auction of her collection in May 1886, the work was purchased by Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona, president of the Bank of Montreal, for $45,000, the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist at the time.

La Communiante by Bastien-Lepage (1875)

Jules Breton’s decision to submit his work to the Salon jurists was not really a gamble as the Salon had shown a love for this type of depiction.  Bastien-Lepage’s La Communiante was favourably received by the Salon jurists in 1875.  In that work, the young girl at her First Holy Communion ceremony sits in front of us. Her hands are joined on her lap in a touch of reverence.  She fixes us with a steady gaze. Her eyes and hair are the only dark details of the canvas. The only colour is that on the face, wrists and arms which are covered under light gauze.  The rest of the work is bathed in tones of white and grey.

La première Communion à l’eglise de la Trinité by Henri Gretrix (1877)

Two years later, in 1877, the French artist Henri Gervex, had his painting, La première Communion à l’eglise de la Trinité, accepted into the 1877 Salon. 

Rolla by Henri Gervex (1878)

The interesting fact about Gervex and the Salon was his works later turned to more lascivious depictions of nude or semi-nude women and the submission of his painting, Rolla, to the Salon jurists of the 1878 Salon was rejected, on the grounds that it was too risqué and they wanted to avoid the furore which occurred with Manet’s 1865 Salon painting, Olympia, which was accepted into the exhibition but subsequently was condemned by many conservative critics as being “immoral” and “vulgar .

Summer by Jules Breton (1891),

Besides being a talented artist, Jules Breton was a poet and in 1880, had his poem Jeanne published.  His poetry was so good that it was awarded the Montyon Prize by the Académie Française.  However, he had little time to dedicate to his poetry as the demand for his artwork was escalating and he was now attracting considerable interest from the ever-expanding and lucrative market in America.

Last Flowers by Jules Breton (1890)

Samuel Putnam Avery was a critical part in exposing American audiences to European Art in the second half of the nineteenth century, importing major works by Ernest Meissonier, Charles-François Daubigny and William Bouguereau, among others, and he provided Breton with many sales and commissions on behalf of collectors.  The American public liked Breton’s depiction of rural labourers as one art historian, Madeleine Fiddell-Beaufort put it in her 1982 book, Jules Breton and the French Rural Tradition:

“…they [the Americans] appeared to exist in a harmonious and classless society that was appealing in a country that prided itself on a democratic tradition…”

The Weeders by Jules Breton (1860)

The American market was also aware of Breton’s awards from the various Salons and realised that buying his works was a real investment.  Two examples of his work that went to America can be seen in the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha.  The Weeders was completed in 1860.  The painting impeccably demonstrates Breton’s Academic approach to painting.  The depiction is a delicate blend of realistic observation and a romantic sentiment. Breton has managed to beautifully capture the delicate mauves and roses of the twilight sky and added the simplicity of these stooped figures, Breton has managed to convert the activity of common field labour into a less harsh scene, almost one of graceful contemplation.

The Vintage at Chateau Lagrange by Jules Breton (1864)

Another of his works at the museum is his 1864 work, The Vintage at Chateau Lagrange.  The setting of the work is not Brittany where a number of his paintings were set. The painting depicts a festival being held in the Médoc district of southern France just north of Bordeaux.  Breton decided to travel to the southern parts of France where he believed lay the “sublime landscapes with inhabitants embodying extraordinary beauty.”  It was fortuitous that Breton was invited by Count Charles Tenneguy Duchâtel, the owner of Chateau Legrange winery to visit him and paint a picture depicting the grape harvest at his estate.  The setting was ideal for Breton but the adverse weather on his first visit necessitated a second visit to complete his sketches.  The painting was then completed in his Paris studio.  It is interesting to note Breton’s portrayal of the grape pickers.  They seem well-dressed and happy and their work has afforded them a distinctly classical quality and the hard-working process of picking the grapes from the vine has been depicted as a noble task rather than a tiring and arduous chore by poorly dressed and unhappy peasants.  Could it be that the Count wanted the painting to depict his workers as well dressed, well fed, happy people who were pleased to serve him?

Planatation d’un Calvaire by Jules Breton (1858)

In his painting, Planatation d’un Calvaire, Jules Breton recounts an event, which he witnessed in his youth.   Before us, we see a group of monks carrying on a stretcher the statue of Christ that will be fixed to the wooden cross.  In the background of the painting, we can see the cross being erected in the grounds of the churchyard.   In front of monks, three young girls wear the symbols of the Passion (the crown of thorns, the nails, and the spear). Finally, behind them, comes the priest, the children’s choir and the parishioners who close the march. The group moves forward in a slow procession towards the great cross, which is in the process of being erected in the background.  Breton, through this depiction, reminds himself of the fervor and recollection of this village community. The palette he has used is dominated by grey and beige, and is warmed by colourful tones of yellow, red and blue.  Breton’s wife, Élodie de Vigne, is represented twice in this painting. She is both the character of the mother holding her two children by the hand and that of the girl in white carrying a cushion on which rests the crown of thorns.

Young Women Going to a Procession by Jules Breton (c 1890),

In 1861 Jules Breton was named Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.  In 1867 he exhibited ten paintings at the Exposition Universelle and was given a first-place medal. In 1872 he was given the Medal of Honour at the Salon. Jules continued exhibiting at the Salons and was promoted from Officer to Commander of the Légion d’Honneur in 1885, and in 1886 he was elected as a member of the Insitut de France. In 1889-1900 he was also a jury member of the Salon. Towards the end of his career his works often focused on a single figure within the composition.

Jules Breton died in Paris on July 5th 1906, aged 79.  His wife Elodie died three years later on July 30th 1909, aged 73.

If you have enjoyed reading about Jules Breton, I can thoroughly recommend you try and read his 1890 autobiography entitled The Life of an Artist which gives you an insight into the great man’s life and his thoughts.

Jules Breton. Part 2. Ruralism and Naturalism.

Jules Breton (1890)

Little did Jules know but this trip with his father to arrange his art tutoring was the last time they would be together as shortly after his father returned to Courrieres, he died.  On hearing of his father’s death, Jules returned home and he was alarmed to see on checking, that the finances of the family business were in a bad state, so much so, some of the family’s furniture had to be sold. Breton finally realised what it was like to be poor and suddenly was able to imagine how the local peasants must feel about their impoverished lifestyle.  He had always loved playing with and mixing with the young peasants but he had never really had to share their lifestyle or their social position in life.  With that in mind the depictions in his paintings began to be all about social realism and the predicament of the poor and the downtrodden.

Calling in the Gleaners by Jules Breton (1859)

Many of Breton’s paintings featured the peasant workers, mainly women, who were known as gleaners, gatherers of grain or other produce left behind in the fields after harvest. This was a charitable activity that allowed the poor and destitute members of a community to collect leftover material after a commercial harvest.   Jules Breton’s desire to depict the plight of the poor and oppressed, was sated with his many depiction of the gleaners.  A good example of this is his 1859 painting housed at the Musée d’Orsay entitled Le rappel des glaneuses [Calling in the Gleaners].  It is an ordinary scene of peasant life in his hometown of Courrières. 

The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet completed in 1857.

Unlike Jean-François Millet’s famous depiction in which we see three women bent over picking up the grain, Jules Breton had portrayed the gleaners leaving the field in which they had been working.  It is the end of the day and the sun has set behind the trees which gives the painting the warm golden glow of late afternoon.  We see the crescent moon in the sky above and to the left and we catch sight of the rural policeman leaning against a milestone cupping his hands around his mouth like a speaking trumpet as he calls in the gleaners.  There are elements of realism in the way Breton has shown the female workers in threadbare, ragged clothes and barefooted but in a way this is also an idealised scene with the peasants walking out of the field with their heads held high in a noble and dignified pose and it was this idealistic and picturesque representation of the peasants and their working life which pleased both the critics and public. The painting was exhibited at the 1859 Salon and was much admired by those who saw it.  It even caught the eye of the Empress Eugenie, who arranged for it to be bought by the French state.  It was then exhibited at the Château de Saint Cloud, and three years later, it was given by the Emperor to the Musée du Luxembourg, which was then known as the Musée des Artistes Vivants.

The Last Gleanings by Jules Breton (1895)

Female gleaners also featured in Breton’s painting entitled The Last Gleanings which is part of the Huntington Art Museum collection in San Marino, California.

The Last Gleanings by Jules Breton (Detail)

In his painting. The Last Gleanings, there are three main characters in the foreground.  A young girl standing alongside a mature woman, both bare-footed, maybe mother and daughter, whilst, slightly behind them is an elderly woman.  This differing of ages, youth, maturity and old age, along with the sunset and the gathering of the remnants of the wheat harvest, can be seen as a metaphor for the passing of time.  The painting has a beautiful background featuring the setting sun, the rays of which wash over the low-lying clouds.  More gleaners follow behind the three in the foreground and to the left we can see a man with a raised stick, signalling the end of the working day.  Although Breton’s painting focuses on the practice of gleaning, we do not see the Millet-type women bent double picking up the remnant grains highlighting the back-breaking nature of the work.  In Breton’s depiction we see the mother and daughter adorned in their peasant attire look well fed and it does not suggest poverty and hardship so his depiction is offering us a mixed message.   On one hand we have a beautiful sunset and the two main characters wearing traditional costumes are carrying, with ease, bundles of wheat.  They look well nourished and yet on the other hand they are walking bare-footed amongst the sharp stubble of the wheat field and we also are aware that continually bending over to gather the wheat is a back-breaking task performed by poor peasants.  

 Catherine Hess, the chief curator of European Art at The Huntington, said we should be aware of the situation in France at the time.  She wrote:

“…In the late 19th century, the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent Paris Commune led to bloodshed and deprivation. And throughout the century, France remained a peasant nation, with three out of four men—many poverty-stricken—making their living by farming. Women, children, and the aged sought out gleaning to supplement their meagre provisions…”

The painting was bought by the American industrialist and art patron Henry Clay Frick.  He purchased the painting for $14,000 in 1895, immediately following its presentation at the Paris Salon. Jules Breton wrote to Frick and talked lovingly about the depiction:

“…it expresses a feeling I have frequently felt before the majestic simplicity and beauty of our rustic scenes, when bathed in the last rays of the sun. Those daughters of our fields seem then to be transfigured, the reflections of the heavens giving them the semblance of being surrounded by a natural halo…”

In 1905 Henry Frick returned the work to the art dealer as his taste in art had changed and in 1906 it was purchased by Henry Huntington for his collection.

The End of the Working Day by Jules Breton (1886-87)

Another of Jules Breton’s paintings featuring female peasants at the end of their working day was completed in 1887 and entitled Fin du travail (The End of the Working Day).  In this painting Breton has depicted three women returning from their day’s work in the potato fields.  The way they have been backlit by the sunset adds to the theatrics of the depiction.  Jules Breton had received Academic training and was well aware of the way historic paintings were very much the vogue when it came to teaching at the academy and maybe he remembered how the heroic betrayal of people in those paintings was thought to be currently  de rigueur.  Breton explained:

“… art was to do [the workers] the honour formerly reserved exclusively for the gods…”

The painting is part of the Brooklyn Museum collection.

The Wounded Sea Gull by Jules Breton (1878)

In the late 1870’s Breton completed a number of single-figure paintings of young females, mainly part of peasant families.  One example of this is his 1878 painting entitled The Wounded Seagull.  It depicts a young Breton peasant woman cradling and stroking a wounded gull whilst other gulls fly around in the background.  The strange thing about this depiction is that although tending to the bird she is not looking at it.  Her demeanour is one of pensiveness and it seems that her mind is concentrating on other things in her life.  This work was shown in 1881 at the first special exhibition at the newly founded St. Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts and remains part of the Saint Louis Art Museum.

A Fisherman’s Daughter b y Jules Breton (1878)

Another single-figure work by Breton is housed at the Musée de la Chartreuse de Douai and is entitled A Fisherman’s Daughter which he completed in 1878.  The painting depicts a girl wearing a red headband under a white cornette.  She is dressed in a blue wool petticoat and a tawny bodice. Around her neck, she wears a purple cotton handkerchief crossed on her chest.  On her arms there are false sleeves and in front of her an apron of grey canvas. She is barefoot, and leans against a rock as she repairs a fishing net for her father.  This was a traditional task that women did for their sea-going folk.   The setting is Port-Rhû near Douarnenez, in Brittany.

The Tired Gleaner by Jules Breton.(1880)

When Breton returned home to Courrières to help the family, he embarked on a number of figurative paintings of full-figure views against the flat fields.  One such work was his 1880 painting, The Tired Gleaner.  It portrays a young woman, stretching her arms, after a back-breaking day working in the fields, with a backdrop of the setting sun.  Breton repeated this backdrop in many of his rural works.

The Song of the Lark by Jules Breton (1884)

One of Breton’s best known and most successful single-figure work is Song of the Lark which he completed in 1884.  It was exhibited at the 1885 Salon where it was purchased by George A. Lucas a dealer from Paris, for his client, Samuel Putnam Avery, an American artist, art dealer, and philanthropist best remembered for his patronage of arts and letters.  It eventually came part of the Art Institute of Chicago collection in 1917. It was deemed the most popular painting in America in a poll conducted in 1934 by the Chicago Daily News  to find the “most beloved work of art in America”  The First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt unveiled The Song of the Lark as the winner and declared the painting as being her personal favourite.   It depicts a barefoot young peasant woman farm worker, sickle in hand, happily singing as she sets off to work in the fields near Courrières.  For this painting Breton’s model was a local woman, Marie Bidoul, who stood for him outdoors in the field at dawn and dusk until the artist was happy that he had captured her form.  

First edition cover of The Song of the Lark

Willa Cather’s 1915 novel The Song of the Lark takes its name from this painting.

…………………………..to be continued.

Jules Breton. Part 1. The beginning of an artistic journey.

Before the era of photography and mobile phones, paintings were often bought as  pictorial aide-mémoirs and I am sure it still happens nowadays.  It could be a portrait of a friend, relative or somebody one admires.  It could be a specific landscape or cityscape which one had once visited and wanted to be reminded of.  The completed painting would then adorn a wall in the room of one’s house and be looked at with pleasure every time we passed by it.  Sometimes a painting is placed on display to lift our mood.  Sometimes the painting may be there to remind us of a life we once had or a life we hanker for.  Whatever the reason, artists cater for our wishes to remember.  Of course, one has to decide whether the depiction in the landscape or cityscape painting is topographically accurate or is it an idealised version.  Maybe we want an idealized version, as over time, do we not conjure in our mind just that.

The Rest of the Haymakers by Jules Breton (1872)

When we look at paintings of rural scenes of the past and focus on the peasant workers, what are we wanting to see?  Do we want to have a painting on our wall which focuses on the difficult times the peasant labourers faced?  Do we want to see the folk poorly dressed, shoe-less and struggling to survive?  If that is what we want hanging on the wall of one of our rooms then we need to search for works by the social realism painters.  However, if we want to see depictions of happy smiling workers then we need to look for works by the rural naturalism painters such as today’s featured painter.  Let me introduce you to the nineteenth-century French painter, Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton, one of the greatest artists who managed to convey the beauty and idyllic vision of rural existence, even if it was an idealised vision of peasant life.

Jules Breton

Jules Adolphe Breton was born on May 1st, 1827 to an important family in the small village of Courrieres situated in the Pas-de-Calais department in the Hauts-de-France region of Northern France.  His father, Marie-Louis Breton, oversaw land for a wealthy landowner. His mother died when Jules was four and he was brought up by his father. Other family members who lived in the same house were his maternal grandmother, his younger brother, Émile, and his uncle Boniface Breton.  Jules lived a contented life as a child despite losing his mother at that early age.    His home life was relaxed and was a happy environment, and he got great pleasure playing with the local children belonging to the local peasant farmers despite Jules and them having come from different social classes.

Young Mother nursing her Child, Courrières by Jules Breton (1873)

 

At the age of ten, Breton was sent to school at a Catholic seminary run by the Jesuits.  It was an unhappy experience for him.  His fellow pupils were unkind to him and he had many a run-in with the authoritarian Jesuits. In the summer of 1842, fifteen-year-old Breton met a man who would shape his future.  He, his father and uncle had been staying with friends at Muno, a Belgium town close to the French border and near the Amerois forest in the Ardennes.  One evening a visitor called on his uncle.  He introduced himself as Félix de Vigne, a painter and professor in the Academy in Ghent. He had come to examine four volumes of French costumes which had beautiful colour plates and belonged to Jules’ uncle.  Although Jules Breton was introduced to de Vigne, the boy’s bashfulness prohibited him from talking about his love of drawing and painting and his desire to become an artist.  When de Vigne left, Jules was devastated at missing the chance of confiding his artistic dreams with the painter.

La Petite Coutière by Jules Breton (1858)

 

In the autumn of 1842 Jules attended the College St. Bertin near Saint-Omer and it was here that he received his first artistic training.   A year later, in 1843, Breton’s uncle happened to be returning home from Lille in a coach and found himself sitting next to Felix De Vigne.  Knowing about his nephew’s disappointment with not conversing with de Vigne, he decided to arrange another meeting under the pretence that he would like the artist to come to their house in order to complete a portrait of my uncle.  The artist agreed.  Not to be wanting to miss another opportunity to talk about art to de Vigne, Jules presented him with sketches he had completed at the college.  Although not liking Jules’ copies of mythological busts he was impressed by his pencil portraits and landscapes.  In the summer of  1843, de Vigne then arranged with Breton’s father and uncle to allow Jules to live with his family and to study with him for three months at his atelier at no.8 Rue de la Line in a quiet quarter of the Belgium city of Ghent.  In his autobiography Jules remembered his first impressions of the city:

“…The city of Ghent seemed to me magnificent.  I felt proud and happy to be able to walk at will through the streets of this Flemish Venice, with its innumerable bridges, its old wharves crowded with merchandise, its ancient houses, some of which look down upon you from the middle ages and whose trembling images are reflected from the waters of the canals, where glide countless boats…”

Breton also remembered de Vigne’s eldest child, seven-year-old Elodie.  And in his autobiography, he described her, writing:

“The eldest, Elodie, was a gentle child, in whose blue eyes, shaded by long, silken lashes, there already shone a mysterious charm.   She went about the house silently, gliding rather than walking.  She held her fragile figure thrown slightly backward and her delicately outlined face, resembling that of one of the angels in a Gothic cathedral, inclined forward, as if bending under the weight of a prematurely thoughtful brow……She was about seven years old and I danced her on my knees…”

Portrait of Elodie de Vigne by Jules Breton (1853)

 

Unbeknown to the then sixteen-year-old Jules, he and Elodie would become man and wife fifteen years after that first meeting.  The couple married on April 29th, 1858.  Jules was thirty-one and his wife was twenty-two.  On July 26th 1859, their daughter Virginie was born.  She studied art under her father and, through her father, she was introduced to other painters, the most influential being Rosa Bonheur who became her role-model and mentor.

Virginie Demont-Breton c.1900, Photograph by Pierre Petit

 

Virginie was a very talented painter and by the age of twenty, she was exhibiting at the Salon where she received an Honourable Mention and, four years later, she won a Gold Medal at the Amsterdam Exposition.  Virginie travelled extensively and exhibited her work in Holland and France, often receiving medals and citations.  She became President of the Union of Women Painters and Sculptresses, and she was the second woman to receive the cross of the Legion of Honour, the first one going to Rosa Bonheur. Her paintings often featured motherhood or French fisherfolk themes. In 1880, she married artist Adrien Demont, once a student of her uncle, Emile, and the couple moved to Wissant, a small coastal village on the Côte d’Opale, midway between Calais and Boulogne.

Her Man is at Sea by Virginie Demont-Breton

 

Whilst living at Wissant, Virginie Élodie Marie Thérèse Demont-Breton began depicting the fishermen and their families in a Realist-style and one 0f her many paintings of that genre, which I particularly like is entitled Her Man is at Sea.  In it we see a mother cradling her baby as she sits by the open fire.  All her thoughts are about her husband who has left the home to go to sea with the local fishing fleet.

Her Man is at Sea (after Demont-Breton), by Vincent Van Gogh, (1889),

 

Obviously it was not just me that liked the work because in 1889 Van Gogh painted a work based on Virginie’s depiction!

Portrait of Félix de Vinge, by his student Lievin De Winne

 

Whilst in Ghent Jules Breton enrolled at the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts where de Vigne was once again, one of his tutors.  The director of the Academy at the time and another of Breton’s tutors was the Belgian portrait artist and sculptor, Henri van der Haert.  During his stay at the Academy, Jules Breton became great friends with a fellow art student, Liévin de Winne, who would later become one of the foremost Belgian portrait painters of his time.  The friendship between the two would last for many years.  Breton studied at the Academy for three years and during this time he would study the works of the great Flemish Masters.   

Jules Adolphe Breton – Jeune fille tricotant (Young girl knitting)

 

Jules Breton left Ghent midway through 1846 and travelled to Antwerp where he stayed for six weeks at the Hôtel Rubens in the Place Verte.  He enrolled at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts at which time the director and one of Breton’s tutors was Gustaf Wappers.  As a professor at the Academy Wappers had taught such well-known painters as Ford Madox Brown, and Lawrence Alma-Tadema.  Breton’s tenure at the Academy lasted a mere three months as he decided it would be more beneficial to spend his time at The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp where he studied and copied the paintings of Rubens.  Besides his love of the works of Rubens, Breton was influenced by the paintings by Memling, Van Eyck, Van der Weyden and Quentin-Matsys.  Nineteen-year-old Breton contracted chronic bronchitis at the end of 1846 and his father had to bring him home from Antwerp.  Jules was very surprised to see how old and ill his father looked and this, despite his own illness,  was of great concern to him.

A Peasant Girl Knitting under a Tree by Jules Breton (c.1870)

 

Eventually father and son got back to full health and Jules needed to decide upon his next step of his artistic journey,  He and his father had visited Paris in 1845 and Jules believed he should return to the French capital and hone his artistic skills.  The decision made, Jules returned to Paris in 1847 and took up residence in a small room on the third floor, at No. 5 Rue du Dragon, on Paris’s Left Bank.  Now the only decision left to be made was which atelier should he join.  After a recommendation Jules Breton went to study at the atelier of the neoclassic French painter, a painter of history and a portraitist, Michel Martin Drolling, who was a professor at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.  Breton remembered the moment he and his father knocked on the door of Drolling’s atelier:

“…I knocked timidly at the door of his studio, it was Drolling himself, his palette in his hand, who opened the door.   He wore a knitted woolen jacket and a red Greek cap, as he is represented in the portrait painted of him by his pupil Victor-Francois Biennourry.   His frank and simple manners, somewhat brusque, and his long white moustache, gave him the air rather of a retired officer than of an artist…”

……………………to be continued.

Léon Frédéric. Part 1. The Naturalist painter

Self Portrait by Léon Frédéric

My chosen subject today is the life and works of a nineteenth century Belgian artist. He has been designated as a Symbolist painter and yet when I look at his work only some of it seems to fall into that category. Other of his paintings tend towards realism.  So, in this first of two blogs about the artist, I am going to concentrate on his woks of Realism.

The Three Sisters by Léon Frédéric

The artist I am looking at today is Léon-Henri-Marie Frédéric. He was one of the most prominent representatives of the Belgian symbolist school. He was born in the Brussels’ municipality of Uccle, on August 26th, 1856. His parents were Eugène Frédéric, a wealthy jeweller, and Felicie Dufour. Léon was brought up in a crowded Roman Catholic household and at the age of seven, his parents sent him to the Institute of Joséphites in Melle, a Jesuit boarding school. In 1871, at the age of fifteen, he began working as an apprentice to the painter, decorator Charles Albert, and at the same time, attended the evening classes of the Brussels Academy of Art, where he became a pupil of Jules Vankeirsblick and Ernest Slingeneyer. He also worked in the studio of Jean Portaels, the Neo-Classicist painter who at the start of 1878 became the director of the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles. In 1875, Léon joined other young painters and they rented a studio and set up a collective, pooling their money so as to employ living models.

The Funeral Meal by Léon Frédéric (1886)

One of the greatest of prizes on offer to young aspiring artists was to win the Prix de Rome. The original Prix de Rome was a scholarship for arts students and was created in 1663 in France under the reign of Louis XIV. The prize, organised by Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, was open to their students. The award winner would win a stay at the Palazzo Mancini in Rome at the expense of the King of France. The Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp followed suit in 1832 and organised the the Belgian Prix de Rome with a similar prize being given to the winner. Léon entered the competition on three occasions but without any success. He was devastated, so much so, that his father financed a two year-long study trip for his son in 1876. Léon travelled to Italy in the company of Juliaan Dillens, who had won the Prix de Rome for sculpture the previous year. Léon travelled extensively through Italy visiting Naples, Rome, Florence and Venice. He visited museums and observed the work of the great Italian Masters. His favourite artists were said to have been Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio. He was also influenced by the Italian primitives and that of the English Pre-Raphaelites, and Burne-Jones in particular. As a painter, Léon said pain ting gave him an understanding of the overpowering beauty and harmony of nature with mankind. This sense of accord was balanced by his own artistic vision which expressed a truthfulness to nature.

Old Woman Servant by Léon Frédéric

On his return to Belgium in 1878, Léon joins the Brussels-based artist group known as L’Essor. The group was created in 1876, and was formed by a group of art students who had once studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, although in 1879 this artists group severed all links it had with the Academy. The motto of the group was “a unique art, one life“, and concentrated on the relationship which they believed should unite the Art to Life. The founders of the group wanted their art to be a pictorial condemnation of the bourgeois and conservative Literary and Artistic Circles of Brussels.

In this first blog about Frédéric I am going to concentrate on his artwork which is looked upon as Naturalism and Realism.  In the early days, Léon Frédéric mainly painted realistic scenes of the lives of the less well-off people such as labourers, the homeless and farm workers. He empathised with their grief and depravation but at the same time he was also very inspired by their never-ending and fervent religious beliefs of the old people who lived in these countryside areas. 

Les garçons (The little boys) by Léon Frédéric

He completed a set of five group portraits entitled Les Âges du paysan (The Age of the Peasant) which depict the five different stages in the life of  rural peasants.  Besides the aging process very little changes with their poor attire and their seemingly acceptance of what life has offered them.

Les fillettes (the young girls) by Léon Frédéric
Les promis (The betrothed) by Léon Frédéric
Les époux (The married couples) by Léon Frédéric
Les vieillards (The elderly) by Léon Frédéric

Around this time Léon was inspired by the art of the French Naturalism painter Jules Bastien Lepage and Léon’s 1882 triptych painting Les marchands de craie (The Chalk Merchants) was inspired by the French painter.

Chalk Sellers by Léon Frédéric (Morning, Noon and Evening) (1882-83),

The three paintings incorporate three distinct times in the day of a family of workers. The triptych was hailed as a veritable masterpiece of Realism / Naturalism and, like some of Bastien-Lepage’s work, is particularly sensitive to the plight of the poor. It was exhibited to great acclaim at the Brussels’s Salon in 1882.

Morning by Léon Frédéric

The left-hand panel depicts a poor family of chalk sellers setting out for work. In the background is their small village. It is a harrowing depiction. The mother is wrapped up against the cold and yet her reddened hands are bare. Her face is half hidden by her headscarf but we still meet her penetrating stare, an almost accusing glower. On her back is a heavy basket of chalk which they hope to sell. Behind her is her husband. He has a red beard and wears a wide-brimmed, floppy hat. His eyes look tired and unable to focus. His mouth is partly open as if he is struggling to breathe. He is struggling with life both physically and mentally. He looks resigned to his fate. He carries a basket on his back which contains a very young blonde-haired child. In one hand he holds a wicker basket containing their food. His other hand clasps the hand of his dark-eyed, rosy-cheeked son, a bare-footed child, whose small dirty hand grasps a piece of bread which he is eating.  They all look tired and yet the day’s work has yet to begin.

Noon, lunchtime by Léon Frédéric

The middle panel depicts the family having a modest noontime meal as they sit in some barren fields with a small town in the background. The family from the previous picture have been joined by a woman nursing her baby and her child sitting besides her. Before them is a pot of boiled potatoes which they are eating with their bread. The two women and the children are all bare-footed. The man has taken off his hat and we see he is bald. The women in the centre once again fixes us with a questioning glower, almost as if she is demanding to know why we should be looking at them

Evening by Léon Frédéric

In the right hand panel we see the family returning home after a day’s work. They all have their back to us. Their village is on the left and way in the background a city looms. The wooden basket and the wicker one they carry have been lightened of food and chalk but still it is a wearying trek back to their village. The man staggers with the weight of the young sleeping child he cradles in his arms. The mother looks down at her other child, who walks besides her, hand in hand, to see if he is alright.  This was just one of Frédéric’s paintings which shows that he was aware of social inequality in Belgian society.

Two Walloon Farm Children by Léon Frédéric (1888),

Another of Frédéric’s Naturalist paintings which was influenced by Bastien-Lepage was his beautiful 1888 portrayal of two children, entitled Two Walloon Farm Children. Bastien-Lepage, who was renowned in France as the leader of the evolving Naturalist school, had died after a long illness in 1884, aged just 36 and Frédéric took over the Naturalist mantle. The painting is both exquisite and yet troubling. It is a portrait of child poverty. The two sit on chairs, finger tips touching, wearing white-collared grey smocks. The plain clothes seem clean and but for their dull simplicity, do not insinuate poverty. Their hands and fingernails are dirty suggesting a peasant life which is further alluded to by their rosy cheeks brought about by their outdoor life. The two girls who look out at us seem to be displeased with our attention to their life. It is one of the most moving images of the deprivation which went hand in hand with rural life. Frédéric’s naturalist style of painting brings with it a vision of a harsh, grim lifestyle with all the hardships that poverty brings to the table. It was not the fault of the people but the unstoppable march of industrial modernity. If one look at all his paintings featuring the harsh life suffered by the peasants one does not detect or sense rebellion, just a sense of dejection and resignation and that life for them would carry on through their faith in God.

The Legend of Saint Francis by Léon Frédéric (1882)

During Frédéric’s travels around Italy in 1878 it is thought that he may have visited the Umbrian town of Assisi and seen Giotto’s famed cycle of twenty-eight frescoes on the lower part of the walls of the nave and entrance in the town’s upper church of St. Francis at Assisi. In 1882 Frédéric painted a triptych depicting St. Francis, simply entitled The Legend of Saint Francis. In the left-hand panel we see the saint walking down a country path and the centre panel depicts him feeding the hens. The right-hand panel is more interesting as it recounts the tale of the St Anthony as written in the 14th century book, Fioretti di San Francesco (The Little Flowers of St. Francis) a fifty-three chapter book on the life of the Saint, one of which talks about the Wolf of Gubbio, which according to the book terrorized the Umbrian city of Gubbio until it was tamed by St. Francis of Assisi acting on behalf of God.

Burial of a Farmer by Léon Frédéric

In 1883, Léon Frédéric left Brussles and went to live in Nafraiture, a small rural village in the Ardennes region of southern Belgium, close to the French border, where he lived for several years. Many of Frédéric’s works after his re-location depict poor people and peasants and the artist’s work focused on the harsh reality of peasant life. One of his paintings, thought to have been completed around 1886, focuses on grief and hardship and were thought to have been completed during his time at Nafraiture. The painting was entitled Burial of a Farmer. Sad burial scenes of country folk were popular ever since Courbet’s 1850 large-scale masterpiece, Burial at Ornans, which had gained Courbet great success at the 1850 Salon. Frédéric’s painting differs in that it depicts a procession of mourners at a village funeral in harsh wintry conditions somewhere in the Ardennes. At the head of the procession is the clergyman with the bible tightly grasped in his hand. Next to him are the close family mourners – the wife, rubbing tears from her eyes, her young son almost hidden behind the black clothes of his grandmother. Behind them are other family members, friends, and a smattering of local people. The black clothes of the mourners against the snow almost makes this a monochromatic depiction but there are just the odd splashes of colour, albeit muted, in the clothes of the three children at the right of the painting. Without doubt it is a very moving scene.

In my next blog about Léon Frédéric I will look at his work which compartmentalises him as a Symbolist painter.

Alfred Sisley. Part 3 – the latter years.

1882 photograph of Alfred Sisley

Alfred Sisley returned to France late on October 18th, 1874 after his four-month summer holiday spent in London. Sisley had been living in the town of Louveciennes since 1872 but in the winter of that year, Sisley and his family moved to 2 avenue de l’Abreuvoir in Marly-le-Roi, a commune in the Île-de-France region, in north-central France, located in the western suburbs of Paris, 18 kilometres from the centre of Paris.

The Church at Noisy-le-Roi: Autumn by-Alfred Sisley (1874).

Many art historians believe that during the time Sisley lived in Marly-le-Roi between 1875 and 1880, he produced his finest works.  In the late autumn of 1874 Sisley completed a work featuring the town of Noisy-le-Roi which lay about 4 kilometres south-west of Marly-le-Roi. It was entitled The Church at Noisy-le-Roi: Autumn. In some ways, it is an unusually constructed work. The subject of the painting, the church has been placed in the mid-ground and there is no visual access to it from the foreground. Our view towards it through the foreground landscape is restricted by the fence line and a number of squat trees. The painting was exhibited at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris on 24 March 1875 along with works by Renoir, Monet, and Morisot. It was purchased by Paul Durand Ruel and submitted to the Salon jurists in 1876 but was turned down. The painting was sold on a number of occasions including an 8500 francs sale to Baron Henri de Rothschild in 1899. It was later bought by Sir William Burrell, a Scottish shipping merchant and philanthropist, who in 1944 gave it to the City of Glasgow Corporation. The one proviso was that this work and the whole of his collection was to be housed in a building far enough from the city centre so that the works could be shown to their greatest advantage, and to avoid the damaging effects of air pollution at the time.

The Burrell Collection at Pollok Park, Glasgow

It took the trustees more than 20 years trying to find a suitable resting place for Burrell’s collection, one which met all the criteria set out in the Trust Deed. A venue was finally found in 1967 when the Pollok Estate was given to the city of Glasgow. The Trustees also had to waive certain terms of the deed which allowed the current site, in Pollok Park to be used. The park was only three miles from the city centre but within the city boundaries.  

La barque pendant l’inondation by Alfred Sisley (1876)

In December 1872 Sisley had painted four pictures showing floods at Port-Marly. In 1876 there was another flood and Sisley executed seven paintings as documentary evidence of its different stages, from the first rise in water level to the return of the river to its normal course. Being well settled in Marly-le-Roi, Sisley was there to witness the great floods of 1876. In March that year, the Seine burst its banks and flooded many of the riverside villages and towns including the neighbouring village of Port-Marly. In his 1876 painting, La barque pendant l’inondation (Boat in the Flood) he depicts a wine merchant’s house, À St Nicolas, which almost looks like it is resting on the mirrored surface of the flood waters. The artist produced six paintings of this event. He cleverly captured the great expanse of water with moving reflections that transformed the peaceful house of a wine merchant into something mysterious and poetic. Sisley’s viewing point gave him an oblique-angled view of the scene which meant that the wine-merchant’s shop becomes the predominant feature of the work and Sisley has been able to depict architectural aspects of the building, especially the upper section. The light colour tones are offset by the black pigment used for the window openings giving a sharp contrast between light and dark. The industrialist, Ernest Hoschedé, originally owned the painting.  He was one of the first major supporter of the Impressionists’ art. His wife Alice became Monet’s second wife. A year after Hoschedé bought the painting his business collapsed and he became bankrupt. The painting was later sold by Durand-Ruel to the wealthy art collector, Comte Isaac de Camondo who had amassed a large number of works by the French Impressionists. He bequeathed this work and a number of other paintings from his collection to The Louvre in 1908, three years before his death. The painting was transferred to its current home, Musée d’Orsay, in 1986.

The Flood at Port-Marly by Alfred Sisley (1876)

The work we see above, The Flood at Port-Marly is housed in the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Madrid. In the painting we see the rue de Paris in Port-Marly. On the right, behind the trees, we can see the overflowing River Seine. The sky is littered by wind-swept clouds which scurry across the sky. Sisley was able to give a marked emphasis to the movement of the clouds through the use of a low horizon line. We can see the road and how the water has flooded the pavements. The sun has reappeared and the water level is starting to recede, which allowed Sisley to set up his easel in the middle of the street and once again return to the use of a central perspective which can be found in many of his paintings. This technique derives from the classical tradition of French landscape painting. In September 1876, shortly after Sisley had concluded his series on the floods at Port-Marly, Stéphane Mallarmé, a French poet and critic, published an article on the Impressionist artists in the London magazine The Art Monthly Review. He said of Sisley:

“…He captures the fleeting effects of light. He observes a passing cloud and seems to depict it in its flight. The crisp air goes through the canvas and the foliage stirs and shivers…”

A Street in Louveciennes by Alfred Sisley (1878)

Sisley’s relationship with the Impressionists can be gauged by a set of statistics. At the first exhibition in 1874, Sisley exhibited five paintings, in the second exhibition in 1876 he had eight paintings displayed and in the third Impressionist Exhibition seventeen of his works were displayed. He did not exhibit any of his paintings at the fourth, fifth or sixth shows. So why? It is thought that two of the reasons could have been the lack of critical acclaim and success at the first three exhibitions but maybe more importantly there was a fragile sense of unity and some tension between the painters at these joint exhibitions. The fourth, fifth and sixth exhibitions were dominated by Degas and the works on show tended to be figure painting rather than landscape painting so this could also be a reason for Sisley backing away. There were few Impressionist artists that had a foot both in the figurative and landscape camps but Pissarro was the one exception and he exhibited at all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions. Sisley was also aware that he had to sell more works and become more well known to dealers and so turned back to the Salon. In a letter to the French journalist, author, and art critic, Théodore Duret Sisley wrote:

“…I am tired of vegetating, as I have been doing for so long. The moment has come for me to make a decision. It is true our exhibitions have served to make us money and in this have been useful to me, but I believe we must not isolate ourselves too long. We are still far from the moment we shall be able to do without the prestige attached to official exhibitions. I am therefore determined to submit to the Salon…”

A Turn of the River Loing, Summer by Alfred Sisley (1896)

Following the third Impressionist exhibition Sisley tried to get his works accepted by the Paris Salon jurists but failed. In October 1878 Sisley left Marly and moved to avenue de Bellevue in Sèvres, a town in the southwestern suburbs of Paris. Sisley’s finances were deteriorating fast. His paintings only sold for small amounts. He was borrowing money so that he and his wife were able to survive and, to make things worse, some of the lenders were demanding repayment of his debts. In 1880 Sisley could no longer afford to live in Sèvres and moved his family to Moret-sur-Loing, a town south of Paris on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau.

A Village Street in Winter, by Alfred Sisley (1893)

Paul Durand-Ruel kept buying paintings from the Impressionists and having them exhibited at various exhibitions and then hopefully selling them on for a profit. However, around the late part of the 1870’s the sale of his paintings was much lower in comparison to the number he had purchased and so he had to source some finance to cover his future buying plans. He turned to Jules Feder, the head of the Union Générale bank in Paris and an important early collector of Impressionist art. In 1880, Feder advanced a great deal of money to Paul Durand-Ruel, enabling the dealer to resume purchasing work from the Impressionists. Immediately upon receiving Jules Feder’s support Durand-Ruel acquired thirty-six paintings from Sisley. This all changed in February 1882 when Union Générale bank collapsed which, in turn, brought about the collapse of the French Stock Exchange, and triggered a general recession, and Jules Feder, the head of the bank, was ruined and because of that Durand-Ruel had to pay the banker back all the money that he had advanced him. Durand-Ruel, with no money to buy further Impressionist paintings, resulted in an extremely uncertain few years for the artists whom Durand-Ruel had supported, particularly Sisley… For the next several years Durand-Ruel was unable to advance money to the Impressionist painters he had always generously supported, and those works he did buy were at much reduced prices and because of this, Sisley was especially hard-pressed to make ends meet.

Bords du Loing, Saint-Mammes (The River Loing at Saint-Mammes) by Alfred Sisley (1885)

Things were changing for Sisley. Paul Durand-Ruel purchased his last painting by Sisley, Saint-Mamme’s from the River Loing, for 200 francs in February 1886. The Impressionists were starting to go their own ways. Renoir and Monet had gained public recognition whereas Sisley had not. This must have hurt Sisley and according to John Rewald in his 1961 book, The History of Impressionism, Sisley had become suspicious and sulky not even seeing his old companions anymore. The French art critic of the time, Arsène Alexandre wrote:

“…he [Sisley] added to his woes by creating imaginary ones for himself. He was irritable, discontented, agitated…..He became utterly miserable and found life increasingly difficult…”

Bridge at Villeneuve la Garenne by Alfred Sisley (1872)

Whereas Monet and Pissarro came back into Paul Durand-Ruel’s fold, Sisley refused. Durand-Ruel and his sons had bounced back and in the 1890’s once again had a successful network of connections in Europe and America who bought from the company. Probably due to his state of depression, Sisley ignored the opportunity to return to Durand-Ruel and benefit from the sales of his work. It was the beginning of the end. Sisley’s wife Eugénie died of cancer in October 1898. Sisley, who was ill himself, did not attend the funeral. He had been attending a doctor for five months but in November 1898 he suffered a massive haemorrhage and his health was deteriorating rapidly. Sisley died of cancer on January 29th 1899, aged 59. Sisley was buried on February 1st 1899 at the cemetery in Moret attended by his children and fellow artists such as Monet, Renoir, and Tavernier.

Dawn by, Alfred Sisley, (1878)

Sisley had been in the process of gaining French citizenship before he died, but on his death. remained an English citizen. His son Pierre settled his estate. According to records at Dammarie-les-Lys, the regional archives for Seine-et-Marne, Sisley’s legacy to his children comprised of his wardrobe, worth 50 francs, furniture worth 950 francs and money obtained from his paintings worth 115,640 francs, making it a total of 116,640 francs, equivalent to £4,665.

The Seine at Port Marly with Piles of Sand by Alfred Sisley (1875)

I end this blog with the words of Monet who, a week before Sisley’s death, wrote about Sisley to his friend Gustave Geffroy, the French journalist, art critic, historian, and novelist:

“…Sisley is said to be extremely ill. He is truly a great artist and I believe he is as great a master as any who have ever lived. I looked at some of his works again, which have a rare breadth of vision and beauty, especially one of a flood, which is a masterpiece…”

Léon-Augustin Lhermitte.

The artist I am looking at today is the French painter Léon-Augustin Lhermitte. I suppose his work could be categorised by three artistic terms: Naturalism, Realism and Ruralism, as he will probably be remembered for his paintings depicting peasant farmers and their families at work in the fields. However, as you will find out, there were more strings to his bow.

Léon-Augustin Lhermitte

Léon-Augustin Lhermitte was the only son of a local schoolmaster. He was born on July 31, 1844 in Mont-Saint-Père, a commune in the Aisne department in Hauts-de-France in north-eastern France, which lies about eighty kilometres north east of the French capital. The village was close to Chateau Thierry, a farming region close to the Champagne region around Rheims. This rural setting was to provide a wealth of ideas, inspiration, and realist subject matter throughout the artist’s life. As a young boy he enjoyed drawing and liked to copy art works he saw in popular illustrated magazines.  He liked to look at books which had illustrations by earlier French painters, such as the Realists. Lhermitte’s father encouraged his son’s artistic hobby by encouraging him to sketch. Léon’s talent quickly became apparent to others. His father, proud of his son’s talent, presented his drawings to Count Alexandre Colonna-Walewski, who, at the time, was minister at the École des Beaux-Arts. Walewski was so impressed by the young man’s artistic ability that he offered him a scholarship of 600 francs and arranged for him to enrol in the École Impériale de Dessin in the studio of Horace Lecoq de Boisboudran. It was here Lhermitte was able to learn about his tutor’s unusual drawing method, which emphasised memorization.

Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran

Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran was born in Paris. In 1819 he was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts and exhibited at the Salon in 1831 and 1840. Later he became a professor at the academy. He taught drawing at l’École spéciale de dessin et de mathématiques, which was better known simply as the Petite École and now known as the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs. He wrote many books regarding drawing techniques including The Training of the Memory in Art and the Education of the Artist, and The Education of The Scenic Memory and The Training of the Artist. He influenced many great artists such as Rodin, Henri Fantin-Latour and Whistler to mention but a few. Lecoq Boisbaudran developed in his pupils a method of training memory. His students were required to copy progressively complex shapes (starting with straight lines and rectangles) and objects before drawing them from memory. The outcomes were then subjected to rigorous comparison with the model and mistakes corrected, over and over again, if necessary. Eventually, the students graduated to making careful analyses of masterpieces in the Louvre and then drawing them from memory when back in the studio. Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudrand theories had a profound effect on Lhermitte. From what Lhermitte learnt from his tutor, he was able to view a scene, notably a landscape scene, and then more fully execute the painting back in his studio. Whilst working at Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran’s studio Lhermitte became friends with fellow artists, Jean Charles Cazin, Alphonse Legros and Fantin-Latour.

La têtée ou La jeune mère by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte (1901)

After attending the École Impériale, Lhermitte moved to Paris and shared an apartment with some of his friends. With the financial help Lhermitte had received from Count Walewski he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts and attended the 1863 Salon des Refusés. Although he was receiving tuition in painting at the École des Beaux-Arts his debut at the Salon was not one of his coloured paintings but a charcoal drawing, Les Bords de la Marne près Alfort (The Banks of the Marne near Alfort), which harked back to his days of draughtsmanship at the École de Dessin. In 1864 his painting, Violets in a Glass, Shells, Screen was shown at the Salon.

The Carpenter’s Workshop by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte (Charcoal on tinted paper)

In 1869 Lhermitte visited London for the first time and whilst there he met Alphonse Legros, a former pupil at the École Impériale de Dessin and he, like Lhermitte, had studied under Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran. Lhermitte returned for a second visit in 1871 and it was then that Legros recommended him as an illustrator for Art in the Collections of England Drawn by E. Lie. More importantly, Legros introduced him to the art dealer Durand-Ruel, who following their meeting, agreed to sell several of his drawings. Later, in 1873 Durand-Ruel arranged for some of Lhermitte’s monochrome pictures to be shown at the Dudley Gallery for the first of the annual Black and White exhibitions and following that, Lhermitte became a regular participant.

Procession near Ploumanach by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte

In 1874 he received his first medal, third-class, at that year’s for three of his works, Le Benedicite (The Benedictine), Le Bateau (The Boat), Une Rue de Saint-Cyr (A Road in Saint-Cyr). It was in the summer of 1874 that Lhermitte decided to spend time in Brittany and soon he became fascinated with Breton culture, their celebrations, and the way the people, especially women, dressed in their Breton clothes. He enjoyed his time in the region, so much so, he returned there on numerous occasions during the next five years. It was a productive time for Lhermitte and he produced numerous depictions of Breton life.

Léon Augustin Lhermitte, An Elderly Peasant Woman, c. 1878

As well as producing colourful scenes of peasants in the fields he never lost his ability to draw with charcoal and one of his best loved is entitled An Elderly Peasant Woman which he completed around 1878 and now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Lhermitte’s technique is quoted as: charcoal with black chalk, with stumping, scraping erasing and wetting, on wove paper. It is a dignified portrait of a humble person. His sitter has experienced a hard and rugged life as can be seen by her weather-beaten face and her crinkled but she has endured all the hardship. By his depiction of the woman, Lhermitte asks us not to feel sorry for her but admire her fortitude.

Market Day At Villenauxe La Grande by Léon-Augustin  Lhermitte

In a letter, dated February 4th 1883, to his friend the Dutch painter and draughtsman, Anthon van Rappard, , Vincent van Gogh commented on the talent of Lhermitte. He wrote:

“…Something else — the boss of Black and White may be someone neither you nor I know. In reviews of exhibitions I see mention made of the work of Lhermitte, a Frenchman who does scenes from the life of fishermen in Brittany. It’s said of him that ‘he is the Millet and Jules Breton in Black and White’, and his name crops up again and again. I’d like to be able to see something by him, and have recently written about him to my brother, who has given me very good information several times in the past…”

La Vendange à Mont-Saint-Père by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte (1876)

In 1876, inspired by the wine making traditions of Champagne, Lhermitte completed La Vendange à Mont-Saint-Père which was exhibited at that year’s Paris Salon. It was a large, highly finished works showing amazing detail and observation. Throughout the 1870’s Lhermitte’s reputation continued to blossom as a painter in the realist tradition of Courbet. Such was his reputation that Edgar Degas wrote in his diary that he intended to ask Lhermitte to exhibit at the 4th Impressionist Exhibition in 1879 but it never happened.

Other prizes and honours came to Lhermitte throughout his long career, including the Grand Prix at the Exposition Universelle, 1889, the Diplome d’honneur, Dresden, 1890, and the Legion of Honour. He was also a founding member of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.

La Fenaison (Haymaking) by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte (1908)

The subject matter of Lhermitte’s paintings rarely strayed from depictions of the peasants and rural life which he remembered from his youth. Without doubt, the most overwhelming influence upon his work was certainly the French Realist painter, Jean François Millet who, like Lhermitte, was equally skilled with pastel as with oil.

The Gleaners by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte (1887)

During the 1880’s Lhermitte embarked on a series of monumental works of rural life, influenced by two of his contemporaries, Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton. In this series of paintings he created beautiful light-filled works which mirrored Millet’s theme and reinforcing the self-esteem of peasant life and the splendour of the French rural landscape in the face of the invasion of modern technology. Lhermitte added realism and careful detail to his rural depictions and this would serve him well, stretching into the 1920’s.

Harvest by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte (1874) Musee des Beaux-Arts, Carcassonne,

In the 1914 book, Le Livre d’Or des Peintres Exposants (The Golden Book of Exhibiting Painters), there was a passage extoling the virtues of Lhermitte’s work:

“…All of his rustic scenes are full of observation and naturalness, executed in a manner which is less and less rugged, and a technique that gains in suppleness. The artist has now discovered his own easy and definitive way of expressing himself and appears in full possession of a subject, which he treats with ease and without weakness. He is the painter of the field worker and rustic landscapes, the theatre of his work. In this genre, he shows a true vision of personages and of the things that surround them…”

Laveuses au lavoir by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte

And again, Van Gogh wrote about Lhermitte:

“…If every month Le Monde Illustré published one of his compositions…it would be a great pleasure for me to be able to follow it. It is certain that for years I have not seen anything as beautiful as this scene by Lhermitte…I am too preoccupied by Lhermitte this evening to be able to talk of other things…”

A Rest from the Harvest by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte

Lhermitte exhibited his work at the Salon on a regular basis and his paintings became sought-after items. Despite that, Lhermitte was not satisfied with his success and strived for more recognition. He believed he just had to complete a work which would help him attain the level of success he craved for.

The Tavern Interior by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte (1881)

As a regular exhibitor at the Salon, Lhermitte’s paintings had become increasingly sought after, though, in his mind, he had not yet attained the level of success that he desired. He wanted to complete a work that would solidify his success and this came in the form of a series of several large-scale paintings portraying the life and people of his native village of Mont-Saint-Pierre. In 1881 he completed The Tavern Interior. This painting was the first piece in Lhermitte’s grand manner series. Before us, we see a long brown table around which gather a few men watching a woman pouring liquor.

Le Père Casimir

The main figure is the man sitting at the right of the long table who is wearing a white shirt and brown pants, holding a spade in his left hand and in his right hand he holds a glass demanding a refill.. This is the peasant hero created by Lhermitte, known as Le Pére Casimir. It is believed that the painting was in fact based on a real figure, an old peasant named Casimir Dehan. Le Pére Casimir is one of the most important themes in Lhermitte’s grand manner series.  Lhermitte depicts the old man with the spade in hand wearing torn and soiled clothing, and thus the artist reveals the status of the working class and the reality of their utter poverty. The weather-beaten face and complexion indicate the long hours spent in the fields with their laborious work, and yet the man’s bulky figure and his upright sitting posture with a spade in hand indicates his heroic temperament.

Paying the Harvesters by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte (1882)

In 1882, his masterpiece La Paye des Moissonneurs (Paying of the Harvesters) was shown at that year’s Salon and it achieved great acclaim from the critics. Thereafter followed numerous commissions. The painting was bought by the French State and housed in the Luxembourg Museum before being transferred to the Hotel de Ville at Chateau-Thierry. It is a classic example of Naturalism in the way Lhermitte accurately depicted the hard-nosed view of life in rural communities.

La Leçon de Claude Bernard by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte (1889)

Lhermitte received a commission in 1886 to paint a large group portrait featuring Claude Bernard, a French physician and physiologist, which would then be hung at the Sorbonne. The painting is entitled La Leçon de Claude Bernard and depicts him in his Laboratory at the Colle de France. He completed the painting in 1889 and was exhibited at that year’s Salon.

Paysannes et Vaches Devant le Village de Mont-Saint-Père, by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte (c.1887) Charcoal on paper.

In 1888 he was approached by Andre Theuriet, the French poet and novelist, who asked him to provide illustrations for his new book, La Vie Rustique. This was a major commission and Lhermitte was able to use the many drawings of peasant life he had already completed. In the introduction the author wrote:
“…We propose to trace the grand acts of the rustic drama: the soaring, the labour, the hay-making, the harvest, and the vintage; we wanted to describe the solitude of the farm, the business of the village life, the pleasures of Sunday, and the preoccupations of the weekdays …”

Andre Theuriat’s words sum up the art of Léon Lhermitte and his position in French art of the late 19th century.

Lhermitte was a founding member of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1890. In 1894 he was made an officer of the Legion d’honneur.
Lhermitte was elected to fill Jacques Henner’s chair in painting at the Institut in 1905. He kept exhibiting his paintings in the first decades of the 20th century, but many critics looked upon him and his works as a relic of a bygone era. However, his style undoubtedly had an influence on Socialist Realism.in later years.  In the last twenty years of his life he worked much more in pastel, with his skill as a draughtsman ever in evidence. He went on to produce some sensitive portraits and peasant scenes which were reminiscent of his earlier and more powerful depictions, ones that van Gogh had cited as “an ideal”.

Léon Augustin Lhermitte died in Paris, on July 28th 1925, three days before his eighty-first birthday.

Julien and Thérèse Dupré – father and daughter Ruralist painters.

Julien Dupré

What do we want from a depiction in a painting? Do we want absolute truth? For example, should a portrait be of hyper-realsitic quality so it almost look like a photograph or should the portrait artist, through their bold brush marks and splashes of colour, produce a portrait which has not achieved photographic accuracy but is how the artist “sees” the model? What do we prefer in a painting Romanticism or Realism? Is it the same as asking about our taste in films, whether we prefer a *rom-com” or a “blood and guts” movie? Do we really want to be reminded of real life or do we want to be lulled by the happiness of how life should be?

In the Orchard by Edward Stott

Many questions, but it all leads me to the painting genre used by today’s artist. Once again I am looking at an artist who was classified as a painter of Naturalism, not just that, but Rural Naturalism, sometimes termed Ruralism. It was a nineteenth century art genre which was realist in nature and yet allowed artists to pictorially advocate the joys of rural life as an alternative to living amongst the grime of city life. The detractors of Rural Naturalism are quick to condemn the depictions of rural life as unadulterated sentimentality in comparison to the harsher work of the nineteenth century realist painters who depicted the harsh and unforgiving life of peasants as they struggled to work in the fields for their wealthy masters. Rural naturalism was seen in paintings by British artists such as George Clausen, Henry Herbert La Thangue and Edward Stott and in many of the artists of the Newlyn School.

Cows at the Watering Place by Julien Dupré

In France the painters closely associated with Ruralism were Jean-François Millet and Jules-Adolphe Breton. Millet is probably most famous for his works such as The Gleaners, The Sowers and The Angelus which all depict peasant farmworkers in a realistic way and highlight the harshness of peasant life.

The Gleaners by Jules-Adolphe Breton (1854)

The paintings of Jules-Adolphe Breton are also greatly inspired by the French countryside and often depict the traditional farming methods used by peasants but they also imbued the beauty and sublime vision of rural existence. Maybe it was a picture of life which did not really exist but was the preference of many. Think back to my analogy of the rom-com!

The Gossip by Julien Dupré

Today I am looking at the work of a French father and daughter who were noted for their Rural Naturalism paintings. They are Julien Dupré and his daughter Thérèse Marthe Françoise Dupré. Julien Dupré was born in 1851 some thirty-seven years after Millet and twenty-four years after Breton were born but his works of art were often compared to theirs and yet there were subtle differences. Hollister Sturgess, the American writer and former Museum director, in his 1982 book, Jules Breton and the French Rural Tradition, wrote:

“…Salon critics rightly perceived Julien Dupré as Breton’s closest follower. Through idealization of form, he invested his peasant women with a heroic aura, though unlike his predecessor, his figures are usually engaged in vigorous action. His landscapes, with their cloudy skies and varied motifs, are also much more active. Their high key color and spontaneous brushwork have a vivacity and freshness that distinguishes them from the somber calm of Breton’s scenes…”

The Goose Girl by Julien Dupré

Julien Dupré was born in Paris on March 18th, 1851. He was the son of Jean Dupré, a jeweller, and his second wife, Marie-Madeleine Pauline Célinie Bouillé. His parents had a jewellery shop in Paris which they had to abandon during the 1870 siege of the French capital by the Prussian forces. Julien enrolled in evening classes at the École nationale des arts décoratifs which then allowed him entrance to the École des Beaux-Arts, where he trained under Isidore Pils, the French history painter and Henri Lehmann, a German-born French historical painter and portraitist.

In the Fields by Julien Dupré(1877)

In 1875 Dupré went to live in Picardy and became a student of Désiré François Laugée. In his early days as a painter he adhered to the academic tradition he had been taught at the École des Beaux-Arts producing many historical and religious works as well as completing portrait commissions and murals. Later he became interested in plein air painting of landscapes and was fascinated with peasant genre subjects. Laugée and his wife had four children. The eldest was their daughter Marie Eléonore Françoise. Julien Dupré became romantically involved with Marie and eventually on May 17th 1876, in Paris, the couple married. They went on to have three children: Thérèse Dupré, Jacques Dupré and Madeleine Dupré. Thérèse Dupré, like her father, became a painter whilst Jacques became a doctor, draughtsman and illustrator and Madeleine a pianist. The year 1876 was also an auspicious year for Dupré as it was the year that he had his first painting exhibited at the Paris Salon.

Peasant Girl with Sheep by Julien Dupré (1895)

Julien Dupré endeavoured to depict the work of peasants in the fields in their harsh reality and to show the bond between peasant farmers and their farm animals. Julien Dupré’s peasant women seen working in the fields is the most enduring of his characterisation. Often, he depicted strong women positioned theatrically and yet elegantly in the forefront 0f his paintings, carrying out strenuous work as pitching sheaves of hay. His finely modelled figures are testament to his academic training, and the quality of his work is due to the influence of the work of Breton and Bouguereau. Dupré also developed a much freer management of the background areas of his paintings often carried out using a palette knife, which indicates the influence of the Impressionists painters. The characters we see depicted in his paintings are not frozen in artificial and unnatural academic poses but are observed equally well in action, as in rest, and by doing so, showing them as everyday working people. In most of his works, the landscapes depicted are idealised but are nevertheless inspired by the countryside of Picardy especially in the region of Saint-Quentin and Nauroy.

Les Faucheurs De Luzerne (The Reapers of Lucerne) by Julien Dupré (1880)

Dupré returned to Paris and worked in his Parisian workshop at 20 Boulevard Flandrin, which he shared with his brother-in-law Georges Laugée. But he loved outdoor life and painting en plein air. He exhibited regularly at the Paris Salon from 1876 to 1910 and won numerous awards. In 1880 he was awarded a third-class medal for his painting, Le Faucheurs de Luzerne and in 1881 he received a second-class medal for his work, La Recolte des Foins. He was honoured with a gold medal at the Paris Fair of 1889 and in 1892 was awarded the Legion of Honour. His works were very popular and many sold internationally especially in America.

An etching based upon The White Cow by Julien Dupré

Marion Spielmann, the prolific Victorian art critic and scholar, in an article  in The Magazine of Art in 1891, entitled The White Cow,  described Julien Dupré as:

… one of the most rising artists of the French School. He is individual in his work, accurate as an observer, earnest as a painter, healthy in his instincts and intensely artistic in his impressions and translations of them… he is always one of the attractions at the Salon………..In The White Cow which was amongst the finest works in last year’s Salon, several of M. Dupré’s merits as a painter are exemplified. The cow – taking a patient and intelligent interest in the operation of milking – is superbly drawn, and her expression admirably rendered. The light and shade, the balance of composition, and the rendering and disposition of the figures combine in this picture to produce a canvas which pleases the spectator the more he examines it…”

Julien Dupré gravestone at Père Lachaise cemetery

Throughout his career Julien Dupré championed the life of the peasant and continued painting scenes in the areas of Normandy and Brittany until his death in Paris on April 15th, 1910. He was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery. His tombstone bears a sculpture of a painter’s palette resting on a wreath of flowers.

Thérèse Marthe Françoise Dupré was the eldest child of Julien Dupré and his wife, Marie Eléonore Françoise Laugée. She was born on March 19, 1877 in Paris, a year after her parents married. From an early age, she came into contact with the many artists who attended her father’s and grandfather’s studio including family members, such as her uncle, the painter Georges Paul Laugée, her aunt Jeanne Eulalie Laugée-Fontaine, and her great-uncle Philibert Léon Couturier.

Le Gardeuse d’oie (The Goose Keeper) by Thérèse Marthe Françoise Cotard-Dupre

There is no doubt that her artistic style was very much influenced by both her father and her uncle, the artist, George Paul Laugée. Just like her father her paintings depicted idealised visions of peasant life in rural France. She started to exhibit her work at the Salon in 1899 and later became a member of the Société des Artistes Français, and in 1907 receiving a third-class medal for one of her works. She married the artist Edmond Cotard on June 2nd 1898, with whom she had two children, Henri Edmond Cotard on October 6th 1899 and François Cotard on January 9th 1905, who both became artists.

La Lessive (The Laundry) by Thérèse-Marthe-Françoise Cotard-Dupré

One of her best-known compositions is her painting entitled La Lessive (The Laundry). Like many of her works, they suggest that she was very familiar with the tasks she depicted in her works. The painting when sold at Bonhams of New Bond Street, London in 2015 achieved a record price for one of her paintings of $66,153.

While her father was a prolific artist, his daughter’s artistic output was much more meagre for one has to remember she was a wife and a mother. She was married at the age of twenty-one and became a mother when she was twenty-two and so the output of her work was severely restricted by her responsibilities as a wife and a mother.

The Milkmaid by Thérèse Marthe Françoise Cotard-Dupre

Her depiction of the peasant farmers, both male and female, as healthy and strong and rarely tired who seem to carry out their tasks with smiles on their faces is obviously an idealised view of peasant life. Such happy depictions of peasant life helped to ease the conscience of wealthy landowners whereas gritty Realist depictions of the down beaten peasant may have gnawed at their consciences.

Fermiere et Enfant by Thérèse Marthe Françoise Cotard-Dupre

She lived for a long time in Saint Quentin in Northern France where she copied and studied the pastels of the great Quentin De la Tour. She created many commissioned works, such as portraits, landscapes, peasant scenes. Unfortunately, many were lost during the First World War.

Thérèse-Marthe-Françoise Cotard-Dupré died, aged 43 on April 13th, 1920 in Orly near Paris in the clinic of Dr. Piouffle specializing in the care of alcoholics.  She was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in the vault with her mother and father.

Luigi Loir

The painter of Parisian boulevards.

Luigi Loir

My featured artist today lived in Paris during the Belle Epoch. The Belle Epoch was that period in time in France, between the end of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 and the start of World War I in 1914. The term Belle Epoch is obviously a retrospective term as it is used to describe a time of optimism, peace and, for some, prosperity. I say “for some” as Paris was then both the richest and poorest city in France. A study of people living Paris in the early 1820’s deduced that just over a quarter of Parisians were upper- or middle-class while three-quarters were termed impoverished. Although this may seem a terrible disenfranchisement of the majority of Parisians, the comparative situation at that time in New York, known as the Gilded Age, showed that the wealthiest two per cent of American households owned more than a third of the nation’s wealth, and the top ten per cent of the population actually owned roughly three quarters of the city’s wealth.

Baron Haussmann and Napoleon III make official the annexation of eleven communes around Paris to the City. Painting by Adolphe Yvon

The artist I am showcasing today is Luigi Loir, or to give him his full name, Luigi Aloys-Francois-Joseph Loir. He was to become famous for his paintings depicting contemporary Paris, a city which had been extensively renovated. The renovation began around 1852 and lasted almost twenty years. Baron Haussmann, who was the Prefect of the Seine, was tasked by Napoleon III to carry out a massive urban renewal program of new boulevards, parks and public works in Paris and was looked upon as Haussmann’s renovation of Paris. The programme of public works Haussmann set about saw him arrange for the chaotic maze of tiny streets with their poor sanitation being bulldozed and replaced by wide, straight, tree-lined avenues, which connected the rail terminals and allowed for rapid and easy movement across the city possible for the first time.

Curinier in his 1899 Dictionnaire National Des Contemporains (National dictionary of present-day people) wrote of Luigi Loir:

“…One can say of this master that he created a genre: the “parisianism”…he is, in effect, the painter of Paris par excellence ; no different aspects of the city, often momentary and fleeting, and none of his successive transformations, is of any secret to him. The vigour of his colours, as well as in the brilliance of his mornings and of his afternoon sun, such as the mists of his twilights, is of a correct observation, that still enhances the conscientious study of the environment…”

Luigi Aloys-Francois-Joseph Loir was born on January 22nd, 1845 in Gorritz, Austria. His parents, of French origin, were Tancrède Loir François and Thérèse Leban. His family lived in Austria as employees of the French royal family, the Bourbons. His father was a valet while his mother was a governess and Luigi’s first two years were spent living at Gorritz Castle. In 1847, Luigi’s family along with the Bourbon family left Gorritz and moved into exile to the Duchy of Parma.

Paris, Morning by Luigi Loir (1890)

All was well for the Bourbon household in Parma until 1859 when the Bourbons were driven out by a revolution following the French and Sardinian victory in the war against Austria. The following year, the Luigi’s family, including his sister, returned to France but he remained in Parma and began studying painting and enrolled at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1853. His artistic studies at the Academy came abruptly to an end in 1863 when news from Paris reached him of his father’s failing health. He immediately set off for Paris. For this eighteen-year-old it was his first time in the French capital and it was Baron Haussmann’s Paris that would inspire his scenes for the rest of his career. In 1865, he made his debut at the Paris Salon with his first notable work, a view of Villiers-sur-Seine that received very high praise. He continued to exhibit at the Salon, receiving multiple awards there, throughout his life.

Paris with Snow by Luigi Loir (1889)

Luigi Loir soon came under the influence of the artist Jean-Aimable Amédée Pastelot who became his primary art tutor. Pastelot, was a painter who concentrated on depicting characters from the Comédie delle’art, flowers and genre paintings in watercolour and gouache. He also produced many illustrations for caricature journals which were very popular during this period.

Jean Pastelot c. 1865

It was whilst working in Pastelot’s studio that Loir began experimenting with his art and trained to become a muralist. One of Loir’s first mural commissions was to paint the wall and ceiling friezes at the Châteaux du Diable (the Devil’s House), a bourgeois mansion in Bordeaux, in 1866.  Loir experimented in various media; mainly oils, watercolour and lithographs, and would also try out different art forms ranging from decoration, theatrical costumes, and illustrations for novels and gained a lot of artistic knowledge during his time with Pastelot.

Porte St Martin At Christmas Time In Paris by Luigi Loir (c.1889)

Luigi Loir was not just a painter. He was probably more known for his hundreds of graphic designs for commercial advertisements, book and music illustrations, menus. He also created numerous designs and theatrical decorations. Loir was recognized as being a very talented graphic artist, and received many commissions for his work, such to design the official exhibition cover of the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. It was around this time that print had been recognised as a genuine art form. Luigi Loir transformed the art of the poster.

Le Boulevard sous la Pluie by Luigi Loir (1889)

Luigi Loir’s awards were numerous. In 1898 he was made Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. He was also a member of the Société de Peintres-Lithographes, member of the Société des Aquarellistes, and a member of the Jury of the Société des Artists Français and of the Société des Arts Décoratifs since 1899. His artwork can be seen in galleries around the world.

Bond of the B.Sirven Co. issued May 14th 1901. Illustration by Luigi Loir

Charles Baudelaire, the Author of Modernism, once said that artists should represent the contemporary environment and there is no doubt that Luigi Loir embraced Baudelaire’s call. Looking at Loir’s style it is easy to note that he was interested in Impressionism and yet his work reflected that of many Naturalist painters. He designed some of the packaging for the famous LU French biscuit company and also illustrated a bond of the company B. Sirven, which was issued 14. May 14th 1901.

Boulevard Haussmann, Paris by Luigi Loir

Loir was entranced by the Parisian street scene which had been transformed by Haussmann’s mission to reshape the Parisian landscape transforming it from a labyrinthine network of dark and dingy narrow medieval streets, into the complex order of grand boulevards.

Evening in Paris by Luigi Loir

Loir must have taken from Pastelot an interest in capturing figural qualities, but Loir invested this type of training instead into his own synthesis of figures and landscape to produce the natural replication of the activity along the Parisian streets. This interest in the Parisian street scene was influenced, however, by another transformation that had entirely reshaped the Parisian landscape and how Parisians spent their leisure time. Beginning in the 1850s, Baron Georges Haussmann undertook an enormous project that changed Paris, from a labyrinthine maze of medieval streets, into the complex order of grands boulevards. For Loir, the streets themselves became the centre of activity – whether it be the bohemian centre of Montmartre or the upper-class promenades of the leisure class. Loir spent hours each day walking the streets in search of inspiration, all the time, studying them and the Parisians who populated them.

In one of the volumes of Figures Contemporaines: Tirées De L’album Mariani, illustrated biographies of famous contemporary characters from 1894 to 1925, Luigi Loir’s relationship with Paris as depicted in his art was explained:

“… he understands the sites; he likes the twilights in them; he studies all of their aspects. His canvases give off the reflection of a faithful mirage, of a conscientious study of urban nature. There is a dilettantism of a stroller and the contemplation of a poet in him. One feels that all of his impressions are real and that he only paints them while under a spell. His interest in the urban cityscape is perhaps more complex than a simple depiction of Paris and its inhabitants. Lori’s sincere reflections on the changing effects of both the different times of day and the weather, show the aesthetic reflection put into his paintings…”

Sortant De La Madeleine, Paris by Jean Béraud

Luigi Loir was not alone when it came to depicting life in Paris. A contemporary of his was the Russian-born Frenchman, Jean Béraud. Jean Béraud was known for his depictions of the changing face of Paris and the nightlife during the Belle Époque. He, like Loir, was captivated with modern life in Paris, especially after the major infrastructure project of what was termed, Haussmannisation, named for Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the prefect chosen to lead the urban renewal project. Béraud painted the newly widened boulevards, the new transportation systems and the intermingling of people from a wide array of social spheres. However, the scenes Béraud and Loir produced were different. Loir was more interested in depicting the environment whereas Béraud wanted to depict the people. In C.-E. Curinier, Dictionnaire Nationale des Contemporains, the difference between the two painters was succinctly put:

“…It is Béraud who paints the Parisians of Paris, but Loir who paints the Paris of the Parisians…”

The Quay of the Seine, Paris by Luigi Loir

In Loir’s depiction of Paris scenes his attention is not given to individual details so much as light and atmosphere

In 1870, Loir was commissioned into the military to record the battles of Bourget, part of the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. Loir concentrated exclusively on painting views of Paris. In these works, Loir caught and expressed the many faces of Paris, at all hours of the day and during different seasons. It was because of his work during this campaign of 1870, that Loir was elected to be the official painter of the Boulevards of Paris. This boosted his career and reputation. In 1879 in was awarded the Bronze medal from the Exposant Fidele des Artistes Francais. Loir was also elected into the Legion of Honor in 1898.

Luigi Aloys-François-Joseph Loir died in his beloved Paris on February 9th 1916 aged 70.

Elisabeth Chaplin

Elisabeth Chaplin

The artist I am looking at today is the French-born painter, Elisabeth Chaplin. She was born in Fontainebleau, France on October 17th 1890. Her father was William Chaplin and her mother was the eminent sculptor and poet, Marguerite Bavier-Chaufour.

A Song Silenced by Charles Joshua Chaplin
A Song Silenced by Charles Joshua Chaplin

A further artistic connection was that of her uncle, Charles Joshua Chaplin, a French artist and printmaker who was known for his landscapes and portraiture. He worked in many mediums such as watercolours, pastels and oils and was probably best known for his portraits of beautiful young women. He became famous in the Paris of Napoleon III and was admired by  Empress Eugenie for the delicate tones of his paintings. He became a member of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, and exhibited his paintings at the Salon de Paris.

Autoritratto contro la finestra di San Domenico by Elisabeth Chaplin (1910)

The family, due to her father’s occupation, moved from France in 1900 and relocated to the Piemonte region of north-western Italy, a region which borders France. A few years later the family was on the move again. This time they went to live in Lagueglia, a coastal town on the Italian Riviera and it was around this time that Elisabeth, now a teenager, began to take an interest in painting and set about teaching herself to paint.

Self portrait in Pink by Elisabeth Chaplin (1921)

The family was soon on the move again and in 1905 finally went to live at Villa Rossi which was in the hills of Fiesole overlooking the Tuscan city of Florence. Living so close to Florence and being interested in painting Elisabeth would spend hours at the Uffizi Gallery copying the paintings of the Grand Masters. Elisabeth received no official training and maintained that the Grand Masters were her tutors and she, their pupil.

Ritratto di Famiglia (Family portrait) by Elisabeth Chaplin (1906)

One of the first paintings she completed was a family portrait in 1906 entitled Ritratto di famiglia in esterno, (Outdoor Family Portrait). She was just sixteen years old and the painting earned her the gold medal from the Florentine Society of Fine Arts. Whilst in Florence, Elisabeth visited the studio of Francesco Giolio’s and met the painter Giovanni Fattori, who was a member of the Macchiaioli, a group of Italian artists who were active in Tuscany in the second half of the nineteenth century. They shied away from the antiquated conventions which were being taught by the Italian art academies. They were lovers of plein air painting so that they were able to capture natural light, shade, and colour. The Macchiaioli are often compared to the French Impressionists, but unlike their French contemporaries they didn’t complete their entire paintings en plein air, but instead would take back to their studios the sketches they had done outdoors and worked them up into a full painting. Elisabeth would have learnt a lot about art from Fattori.

The Garden of Villa Il de Trepiede by Elisabeth Chaplin

In her early twenties, Elisabeth exhibited her work in all the major Italian exhibitions between 1910 and 1914. Her work was shown at the Società delle Belle Arti in 1910, and the Internazionale di Valle Giulia in Rome in 1911. In 1912 her work could be seen at the Promotrice Fiorentina, the Secessione Romana in 1913 and the Venice Biennale in 1914.

Three Sisters by Elisabeth Chaplin (1912)

In 1916 she and her family moved to Rome, and it was here that she was able to immerse herself into the vibrant, international cultural climate and through her artwork was able to build on her reputation as an international painter. It was in the Italian capital that she met Paul-Albert Besnard, a French painter and printmaker who became one of her mentors. After a two year stay in Rome Elisabeth returned to her beloved Villa Il Treppiede.

Two Nudes or Double Self-portrait by Elisabeth Chaplin (1918)

It was around 1918 that Elisabeth Chaplin created what is now looked upon as one of her masterpieces. The painting was entitled Two Nudes or Double Self-portrait, and is one of few works which was not bought by the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Palazzo Pitti a few years before she died. Elisabeth depicts herself in a dual position, front and back, as she holds onto a red sheet that is tantalisingly falling off her naked body. It is a Symbolist-style work and any likeness to her disappears, giving way to Symbolist features that go beyond a solely naturalistic portrayal. It is a beautiful example of chiaroscuro with the light striking the figure from below. The colour palette she uses is vivid with reds and blues meeting and conflicting. There is a whiff of exoticism about her long, black hair and about the red sheet that looks like a Tahitian wraparound skirt, so much so that the Italian art critic and author of the 1994 book: Elisabeth Chaplin, Giuliano Serafini, stated that it was “an unwitting tribute to Gauguin, which remains one of her most fascinating and emblematic pictures, is the nude conveyed with such fullness of style and truth.” .

Fanciulle in Giallo (Young girls in yellow) by Elisabeth Chaplin (1921)

I think my favourite Elisabeth Chaplin work is one she painted in 1921 when she was living in Paris. Its title is Les Jeunes filles en jaune (Young girls in yellow). The painting depicts them dressed in yellow-coloured clothes and this derives from the many self-portraits Elisabeth did during her childhood.  The two young girls are totally different.  The redheaded girl on the left is seated. Her hair is unfettered. She stares out at us with such intensity. Cradled in her arms is a black cat, a creature that is often looked upon as being enigmatic and yet sometimes malign. The cat is a sacred icon that infuses mystery and thus this young girl represents disorder and turmoil. The other girl with her distant blue eyes is so different. There is an air of calm and graceful tranquillity about her. Her hair is neatly coiffed and she is seen touching a bunch of anemones, the embodiment of innocence. This duality is a connotation of Symbolism and we again see the duality with the reflection of the girl’s hand and the vase on the dark brown table.

Self-portrait with a Green Umbrella by Elisabeth Chaplin (1903)

In 1946, the Uffizi Gallery bought three of her paintings and asked to be given an early self-portrait by her. She agreed and donated her 1903 work entitled Self-portrait with a Green Umbrella and it now hangs in the Vasari Corridor.  The most famous and the most respected collection of self-portraits in the world are to be found in the very long Vasari Corridor of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  (It has been closed for major renovations). The corridor is a long, raised passageway that connects Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza della Signoria to Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river Arno. The passageway was designed and built in 1564 by Giorgio Vasari and its function was to allow Cosimo de’ Medici and other Florentine elite to walk safely through the city, from the seat of power in Palazzo Vecchio to their private residence, Palazzo Pitti. It is a veritable tribute to art but more especially to those who have created it. Along the walls there are great self-portraits by the Masters, such as Rembrandt, Velazquez, Delacroix and Chagal. The first paintings were bought by the Medici family, and after the collection started, the family began to receive the paintings as donations from the painters themselves. However, what is noticeable about the collection is the small number of self-portraits by female artists. There are some such as Marietta Robusti, the talented daughter of Tintoretto, who died prematurely, Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, who immortalized for posterity the image of Maria Antonietta and today’s artist whom I am writing about, Elisabeth Chaplin. One of her very first paintings.

Self-portrait with her mother by Elisabeth Chaplin (1938)

Buoyed by the success of her work, in 1920 she had her paintings exhibited for the first time at that year’s Paris Salon. During the 1920s, she exhibited with Cezanne, Matisse, and Van Gogh and had her work was exhibited twice at Venice Biennale, in 1924 and 1926. Her work received great acclaim at the Salon, so much so that in 1922 she moved to Paris and remained in the French capital until the end of World War II. During her extended stay in Paris she spent time going to the Panthéon and the Hotel de Ville to study the work of the Symbolist painters, such as Puvis de Chavannes. Her acclaimed work brought her many commissions including producing large murals for the churches of Notre-Dame du Salut and Saint Esprit. In 1937 she was awarded the gold medal at the Exposition Internationale and a year later was given the Légion d’Honneur.

Mendiante avec enfant – Misère (Begging with child – Misery) by Elisabeth Chaplin

Elisabeth Chaplin died in Florence in 1982, aged 91. Most of her work including her family portraits, plus some plaster figures created by her poet and sculptor mother, Marguerite de Bavier-Chaffour, were donated to the Pitti Palace and have been on display there since 1974 in a room devoted entirely to her work.  More than six hundred other works are in storage at the Palace.

Agnès Boulloche and her surrealist world.

Agnès Boulloche

My last blog was about the painter Alfred Robert Quinton and his artwork which was perceived to be “chocolate-boxy” and kitsch and yet, I believe was a charming window on beautifully tranquil bye-gone days of rural life.

The artwork today could not be more different. It is Surrealism. Surrealism, which means “beyond reality”, was a movement, principally in literature and the visual arts. It thrived in Europe between the First and Second World Wars. The Surrealists rejected rationalism and held the belief that the rational mind repressed the power of the imagination. Surrealists instead tried to channel the unconscious mind and by so doing, reveal the power of the imagination.

The founder of the Surrealist movement was the French poet and critic André Breton who launched the movement by publishing the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 and led the group till his death in 1966. Surrealist artists find magical enchantment and enigmatic beauty in the unexpected and the strange, the overlooked and the eccentric. In a way, it is a belligerent dismissal of conservative, if somewhat conformist, artistic values. The depictions in the Surrealist paintings are startling often colourful. In some ways they are mesmerising and one wonders what was going through the mind of the painter when they put their ideas on canvas or wood. My featured artist today is French and she was considered to be one of the leading twentieth century French Surrealist painters. Let me introduce you to Agnès Boulloche.

Le Jeu de la Chausse-Trappe (The Trap-Door Game) by Agnès Boulloche

Agnès Boulloche was born in Paris in 1951. She was the daughter of André Boulloche, who in 1940 joined the Resistance movement He was captured and deported by the Nazis. In 1959 he was made Minister of National Education under the mandate of General de Gaulle. He was known as a politician of integrity and conviction. Sadly he died in a plane crash, barely 62 years old. Agnès spent much of early childhood in Rabat, Morocco where André was head of the Road Bureau. As a child she loved to paint and draw. Her mother, Anne, once said that she was born with brushes in her mouth, where others have a pacifier! From a young age Agnès was also fascinated by myths and mythical lands and loved to hear about the adventurous tales of the Arabian Nights. Her other interest, and maybe it came from living in an Arab country, was the world of jinn. Jinn being defined in Islamic mythology as a class of spirits, lower than the angels, capable of appearing in human and animal forms and influencing humankind for either good or evil.

Les Marmitons by Agnès Boulloche

From an early age Agnès had always been immersed in a world populated by fabulous beasts, countless chimeras, gorgons and genies. She experiences life in a fantasy world inhabited by humanimal creatures who she depicts in her artwork dancing, riding on each other and even spinning their horned feet around chessboards in stone-paved gardens. This was her fantasy world which she once described:

“…I’ve always had that taste for escape and freedom. Already a child I escaped, taking the side roads to find my close friends, a whole people of fabulous beasts, chimeras and other geniuses. And my left hand lent itself to my dreams and allowed me to evolve in this magnificent dimension that is painting…”

She always had an affinity towards animals, once saying:

“…I do not see so many differences between humans and animals. On the contrary, I see a lot of interference. However, I hate bestiality on one side or the other. What I disliked was the fact that animals are considered objects, which fortunately is no longer the case since the recent vote of the deputies on April 15, 2014…”

The Garden of Earthly Delights in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, by Hieronymus Bosch (1495 – 1505)

Agnes Boulloche paints in oil on wood panels and uses the ancient technique of “glaze”, a superposition of thin transparent layers of colours. She also uses many chemical recipes to create her pigments and varnishes.
When she was a teenager, she and the family left Morocco and returned to Paris where she enrolled at the École des arts décoratifs, a school which had a major role in the development of the Art Deco design movement in the 1920s and in the creation of new design concepts. Agnès focused on oil-on-wood painting. Except for a short period at art school Agnès was self-taught. One of her main artistic influences is the artist Hieronymus Bosch, whose works are often populated with strange and exotic animals.

Le renard dans le bestiaire médiéval

Agnès also liked to look at the illustrated bestiaries, which must have inspired her works. A bestiary was a compendium of beasts. A bestiary means a manuscript of the Middle Ages gathering fables and morals on the “beasts”, real or imaginary animals, mystical animals. They originate in the ancient world and were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals. She would study works by Philippe de Thaon, Guillaume le Clerc, Gervaise de Fontenay and Richard de Fournival in a modern version. The themes of her inspiration were creatures, half-men, half-beasts, but according to her, they were “more than human”.

Agnès Boulloche – Self Portrait  entitled We Two (2013)

Her painting technique followed traditional methods. Agnes used her own different alchemical formulas for her colours and mixed her own colours, pigments and varnishes. She would then use these oils and paint on wood panels in “glazing technique” used by the Old Masters, in a way in which many transparent layers of colours are laid on top of each other in several passes. This made it possible to work out very fine details and attain delicate, bright colours. Agnès Boulloche paintings are often set in landscapes, which appear similar to those we see in Renaissance compositions.

Danse avec la Lune by Agnès Boulloche

Besides her paintings, she would spend time in the production of sculptures, which were mainly cast in bronze in wax castings and hand chased and then patinated.

Agnès Boulloche in 2014 creating one of her favourite animals -an owl

In the photograph above, taken by her daughter, Julie Lipinski we see her working on one of her favourite animals, the owl.

Oiseau Au by Agnès Boulloche

Soon after completing her studies, she opened her first exhibition in Paris. She was invited by friends to visit them on the Ile de Ré but for Agnès it was not love at first sight. She recalled that at first she deemed it to be ugly and flat. However, she returned the following year and, had a change of heart:

“…When I came back the following summer, I noticed the lack of bars on the ground floor windows and the houses that were not necessarily closed twice when we were away, etc….. I said to myself, this is a place where the notion of freedom must still have a meaning…”

Le Rat de Bibliothèque by Agnèes Boulloche

She used to live and work alternately in Paris and in the town of Foix on the Île de Ré, which lies on the southern French Atlantic coast. In 1994 she finally made Loix her permanent home. She knew it was her destiny to live in Loix saying:

“…Convinced that it was there that I had to be, I first rented a house in Loix, then quickly bought a first home, still in Loix, my village for 18 years. Even though I have always been painting and if I’ve been living for about forty years, in Loix, when I leave home, I am not permanently stamped “painter”. No, I am a Loidaise [term for people of Loix] full, I participate in a real village life and I feel adopted. So to honour this shared friendship, I contribute artistically, and of course voluntarily, to the daily life of the village by making street signs and various other things such as the cemetery or the children’s kitchen garden of the school…”

Le chien tiroir (The Drawer Dog)  by Agnès Boulloche

She bought her first house, but it had no garden and she missed that aspect of living. Then she met Michel Héraudeau, a local builder and in 1996 they joined forces and bought some land in the heart of Loix. He then built Agnès’ house first, then his own, but by this time they had fallen in love and he moved in with Agnès. Soon their common garden was full of flowers and their life became a great love story, which lasted until her death.

Le Bal des Masques by Agnès Boulloche

In 2011, her daughter, Julie Lipinski, also moved to Loix with her partner, Thibault Chenaille, and their 13-year-old son Swan. Then, in 2013, Agnès Boulloche became a grandmother for a second time with the arrival of Julie’s second child, a son, Marlow. Now, Agnès’ life could not be bettered. She was a very successful artist who was now surrounded by her daughter and her grandchildren. Julie described her mother as being a passionate lover of life, a very sensitive person but for all that, one who has a natural authority.

L’Atelier de la Lune by Agnès Boulloche

Sadly in June 2018 she was diagnosed with having cancer. Her daughter said that she accepted the news and never complained as she was a woman of great strength of character. Agnès Boulloche died on April 7th 2019. On that Sunday afternoon, her daughter announced her passing in Facebook, simply writing:

“…My mom joined her fantasy world this morning…”

A tribute was held together with the dispersion of her ashes at the port of Loix Saturday, on April 20th. The local newspaper, Ré à la Hune, recorded the news of her death writing:

“…Since her death, there has been a shower of tributes that sweeps over the social network, on the island of Ré, and more precisely to Loix. For twenty-five years, Agnès Boulloche had put her baggage in this village she loved so much, because in the middle of the salt marshes, the land, the sea and the sky were her horizons and especially her anchors. In her suitcases, she had first brought back her brushes and paintings, and of course, all this universe of her own, populated by animals like the rhinoceros, the cat, the owl, the unicorns, but also angels and little girls or young women with bare breasts, but with ruffles and pointed hats…”

La Licorne de Troie (The Trojan Unicorn) by Agnès Boulloche

Agnes Boulloche had her paintings exhibited in Paris, as well as several other European countries. Her Surrealist works of art have also been seen in the United States, and in Africa. Her work brings out the energy of the colour she uses and seemed well suited in her imaginary world, a world where dreams prevail over reality. An art critic once wrote:

“…Agnes is a ghost who dreams with her eyes wide open …”.

L’Ecuyère (The Rider) by Agnés Boulloche

At the start of this blog I talked about the meaning of Surrealism paintings and pondered on what went through the artist’s mind when they formulated their depictions. Are there hidden meanings or were the depictions just amusing fantasies? In the case of Agnès Boulloche we may get closer to her reasoning for she decided to put her ideas on paper with her Dictionary of Symbols. I am not sure they help but here are some of the examples from her dictionary:

Cochon; animal très pieux et avenant toujours prêt à se faire atteler ou chevaucher par n’importe qui
Pig; a very pious animal, always ready to be hitched or ridden by anyone.

Chien: ne laissez jamais un chien nu sinon il fugue. Vêtissez le plutôt d’un chapeau de lune et d’une fraise empresée de dentelles
Dog: never leave a dog naked otherwise he runs away. Wear a moon hat and a strawberry with lace

Hibou: à tiroirs, il garde nos secrets
Owl: with drawers, he keeps our secrets

Licorne: sa corne telle celle du narval, son sosie marin, peut empaler les mérous, trépaner les dés ou décrocher la lune                                                                      Unicorn: its horn, like that of the narwhal, its marine look-alike, can impale the groupers, skewer the dice or catch the moon

Nef: folle, elle navigue bondée de créatures insensées qui se jouent de sa ligne de flottaison
Ship or boat: crazy, it sails full of crazy creatures who play with her waterline

I am not sure they help you decode the paintings but they do give you a further insight into the mind of the artist

Le Retable du Poisson Rouge (The Red Fish Altarpiece)  by Agnès Boulloche

Agnès seemed to have lived a happy life surrounded by her family on the Ile de Ré and yet she also loved to escape that land and journey to her imaginary world which brought her equal happiness.  She will be sadly missed.