This summer the Musée départemental breton and the musée des beaux-arts in Quimper is giving visitors the chance to discover both their magnificent permanent collections and this summer’s temporary exhibition with just one ticket !
The exhibition is devoted to artists of the Société Nouvelle de Peintres et Sculpteurs (New Society of Painters and Sculptors), the best-known artistic association and the most representative of the Belle Epoque and the inter-war period. Between 1895 and 1939, these artists received unanimous public support and critical acclaim and were present at all major international exhibitions. Through their interpretation of objects, landscapes and people they wanted to draw the beholder into guessing what lay behind the subjects within the mysterious depths of the picture. All of the members had a common taste for interior scenes, scenes from everyday life and a love of nature. They were often known as the «Last of the Impressionists».
This exhibition is the first of its kind in France to accord the movement the important place it holds within the history of art. It is in two complementary parts which should be viewed as a whole, one at the Musée départemental breton and the other at the musée des beaux-arts.
At the Musée breton, visitors discover artists who were particularly attracted by Brittany and the sea : Charles Cottet, who painted Cornouaille and people who lived by and made their living from the sea ; André Dauchez, a landscape artist who depicted the banks of the Odet and Pays Bigouden ; Lucien Simon, who celebrated beautiful costumes in scenes at religious pardons, markets and workplaces. Prinet’s favourite subject was the enjoyment that was had on beaches during the Belle-Époque, while the landscapes of René Ménard have a dream-like quality inspired by memories of ancient mythology.
As well as paintings, a section of the exhibition is devoted to graphic works by the artists (drawings and prints).
At the musée des beaux-arts, under the aegis of Rodin, visitors follow the footsteps of Intimist painters who, in respecting the veracity of appearances, perpetuated the permanent values of European art, with attention to poetry, psychology and introspection. Descended from the symbolist generation, these artists with very differing styles drew their inspiration from the same sources, and in particular that of Impressionism. Visitors can admire large urban and rural landscapes as well as a collection of wonderful portraits.
This exhibition has been organised in collaboration with the Musée départemental breton, Singer Laren (Netherlands) and the Palais Lumière, Evian.
The Intimist painters of the Belle Epoque naturally established themselves as leading painters of faces and were without doubt the last of the great psychological portrait artists. Their elders, the masters of Impressionism, who remain among the greatest landscape artists in the history of painting, were less successful in this delicate field of psychological intrusion. « Portrait painting sessions are tiresome, confessed Jacques-Émile Blanche, if you have no appetite for conversation or if you are disturbed by the people’s very presence. » The broad culture these painters possessed added charm and imagination to their conversations and made modelling sessions most enjoyable. While asking the model to make themselves comfortable so they could capture the expression which would remain on the canvas, the artists also reflected on their likes and dislikes, friends and feelings. As Jacques-Emile Blanche put it « When an artist reveals the secrets of a model’s soul by observing and listening it is with the same feeling of intoxication as a psychologist or a philosopher, isn’t it? He concluded : « What we are seeking in a portrait is life. »
AT THE SERVICE OF HISTORY, allegory and fantasy
We might imagine that this generation of painters closely connected with Intimism neglected historical painting and huge monumental works. This was definitely not the case and under the joint influence of Puvis de Chavannes and the Third Republic interest for non-military wall decoration, some of the artists excelled in this field. One of the most talented, Henri Martin, was frequently commissioned to imagine decors in which he exerted his innate sense of allegorical representation to the full. From Marseilles to Toulouse and Cahors, his paintings of people working in fields or towns take on a timeless originality imposing his idealistic vision. He showed the same acute artistic awareness when depicting abstract figures like Justice, his magnificent interpretation of a universal concept. Other artists like Aman-Jean, Carrière, Besnard and Desvallières took great pleasure in the demanding tasks of large-scale decoration and historical painting. However, the most original in this field was without doubt Gaston La Touche. Whether he was treating bible stories like the Prodigal Son (l’Enfant prodigue) or mythological allegory as in Dawn (l’Aube), his unbridled creativity, often in a class of its own, transformed these well-known subjects into memorable visions of an enchanting world.
‘Les Amis du Nord’, THE Etaples GROUP
The New Society was born out of common taste, but also on the back of the solid friendship which bound together a handful of artists from the north of France. The nerve centre was the fishing village of Etaples on the mouth of the River Canche in the Pas-de-Calais, where a colony of nature-loving artists settled from the 1880s onwards. Most of them lodged at the Auberge belonging to Antoine Ioos who generously accepted their pictures in lieu of payment and hung them on the walls of his dining room. The local people, who lived almost entirely from fishing, had kept their customs, Picard dialect and traditional costumes. They soon grew used to the presence of the young painters and opened boarding houses, studios and even an artist’s supply shop for them.
Among the first artists to settle in Etaples were the Franco-American Eugène Vail and the Breton Henri Le Sidaner, both of whom stayed about ten years. Henri Duhem from Douai lived in the neighbouring village of Camiers for a long time. The Norwegian Frits Thaulow spent six months in the area and got to know all the artists who worked there : « A group of young, joyful artists, most of whom became friends for life. », recalled Alexandra, the artist’s wife. Another visitor was the Flemish painter Emile Claus, before a hundred or so artists, in particular two colonies of American and Australian painters, settled in the region long-term.
Although they did not attain the qualities of brightness and freshness of their illustrious predecessors, it is perhaps in their landscape art that the painters from the New Society best expressed their personalities. The motifs chosen at the beginning of their careers, when they were still under the influence of Symbolism, were often bathed in gloomy twilight or moonlight. In addition, their wistful landscapes retained a dream-like quality and were considered « emotional landscapes » by observers. But these well-travelled artists quickly tried to give a more vivid representation of everyday life. In keeping with tradition, they respected excellence of design and use of colour, achieving impact by opposing light and dark. Once the exhibition season was over and the fine weather had returned, each artist would retreat to his hideaway to spend the summer painting, gardening and enjoying family time. When October arrived along with its flattering parade of autumn shades, the artists took up their nomadic lifestyle once more. Their search for subjects for the spring exhibitions led them willingly to the popular destinations of the Belle Epoque such as the French Riviera, Spain, Lake Maggiore and Venice.
The success of exhibitions by the New Society attracted well-known artists. Major decisions within the group were taken by a majority vote of members. In 1902 Jacques-Émile Blanche and the « gentleman painter » Antonio de La Gandara were admitted and the following year it was the turn of George Desvallières, Henry Caro-Delvaille and Ernest Laurent. The latter had not been part of the founding of the Society in which his place was obvious, because of a quarrel with Aman-Jean for which no one knew the reason.
In 1906, after a serious crisis led to the expulsion of Gabriel Mourey, whom a number of members had accused of errors in his running of the Society, Auguste Rodin became President. Enhanced by the presence of Albert Besnard and Eugène Carrière, the group took the name Society of Painters and Sculptors (Société de peintres et de sculpteurs), but the Press continued to use the original name. On the insistence of his friends, Claude Monet finally agreed to join them in 1908 but, although his name figures among the list of members in the Society’s catalogue, the ageing painter does not appear to have shown any works. The last two painters to join the New Society were the American portrait artist, John Singer Sargent and in 1911, an Italian landscape artist, Jean-François Raffaëlli.
PRINTs AND WORKS ON PAPER
Very talented at drawing, the artists of the New Society of Painters and Sculptors took great advantage of the resurgence of prints at the end of the 19th century. Under the presidency of Jean-François Raffaëlli, a number of them got together to form the Society of Original Coloured Engraving which exhibited at the Georges Petit Gallery.
The amazing lithographs by Eugène Carrière led Gustave Geffroy to remark : « He does not depict life superficially as a single dimension, but scrutinises it in depth. » The public were equally thrilled with those of Aman-Jean, one of whose initial prints portraying Verlaine prompted the poet to say : « You have captured me in a moment of intimate tranquillity. » Aman-Jean also presented a series of etchings for the first time. The aquatints of Frits Thaulow were also an overwhelming success along with those by Jean-François Raffaëlli of whom Maurice Barrès commented : « The genius of Raffaëlli lies not in his reproduction and definition of aspects of suburban life, but in his sensitivity and the way he transmits the emotions the scenes evoke in him to us. » The wonderful monotypes of Ernest Laurent were only revealed to the public at the retrospective exhibition dedicated to him at the Musée de l’Orangerie shortly after his death: « The success of these works was immediate », commented Henri Le Sidaner. A series of prints and pencil portraits showing the exquisite sensitivity of the artist are on show along with a collection of superb water colours by his friend Henri Duhem who learned the technique from his master, Henri Harpignies.
More prints and works on paper are on show in the graphic arts gallery, Room 16, on the first floor of the Museum.
THE USE OF BRUSHSTROKES
Aman-Jean and Ernest Laurent used to share a studio with Georges Seurat during their younger days. When Laurent persuaded his two friends to visit the last of the Impressionist exhibitions, the shock they received led them to consult theoretical works about colour and to meet the chemist Eugène Chevreul, author of the Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours (De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs). Chevreul claimed that placing complementary colours from the colour wheel side by side, created the strongest contrast for those two colours. Through conversations and experiments the three young painters spawned the style known as Divisionism. But whereas Seurat used his systematic mind to the full to explore colour contrasts, Laurent and Aman-Jean were more instinctive and using a travel scholarship from the Salon, went to Italy where they met Henri Martin. Martin’s technique evolved slowly into a very personalised style of Tachism which showed no respect for that of orthodox Divisionism. The works he submitted to the Salon so delighted the public that it provoked an astonishing, jealous reaction from Signac, who had become a disciple of Seurat, accusing Martin of : « stealing from the Impressionnists and Neo-Impressionnists ! ».
In their own way, Le Sidaner, La Touche and Claus also adopted the separation technique made popular by the masters of Impressionism. But it was their very personal use of brushstrokes which brought their works to life. Emile Claus once wrote to Henri Duhem : « People have been telling me about Chevreul’s book for years but I’ve never had any desire to read it ; I hate systems. »