If art history is written by the winners, then many great masters were effectively excised from any sane chronicle of art history with the advent of Modernism. One such talent was Émile Friant (1863-1932), a French naturalist painter born in the small town of Dieuze, about 25 miles northeast of Nancy, in eastern France. Friant’s father was a locksmith and his mother a dressmaker. Like many of the artists covered here, Friant was something of a prodigy. Friant studied under Louis Theodore Devilly (1818-1886) while still a teenager; Devilly was the director of the school of drawing in Nancy and an advocate of realism.
Friant was only 15 years old when he made his debut at the annual Salon in Nancy in 1878. His great abilities were readily apparent; he was soon awarded a municipal scholarship for study in Paris. He entered the studio of the famous Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889), but Friant felt constricted by Cabanel’s severe Academic style and returned home. Friant was better inspired by other Lorraine artists, including Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884) and Aimé Morot (1850-1913). He would go on to enjoy a very successful career and win many honors, including the grand prize at the Paris Salon in 1889, the gold medal at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and the ribbon of the Legion of Honor that same year.
Friant eventually became a professor of painting in 1923 at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. He was later promoted to the position of commander in the Legion of Honor, and made a member of the Institut de France. Friant died from the results of a fall he suffered in Paris in 1932.
Friant’s work is interesting as he seems to straddle two distinct epochs. Though he may have balked at Cabanel’s training, Friant could never fully embrace the movement toward Impressionism. Like the Impressionists, Friant painted pictures of everyday life – however, he did so without the splotchy tricks most often used by Impressionists. Art history often calls those caught between the Academy and Modernism “Realists,” but to do so also does discredit to Friant’s masterful feel for color and tone.
Like many artists, Friant painted a series of self-portraits throughout his lifetime. The portrait that we look at here is of the artist aged 15 or so. Before looking at the art, let’s take a moment to look at the artist. Friant at 15 is a very handsome youth indeed; his red hair is thick and bushy, swept over his large brow. His eyebrows are thin and sculpted, his gaze steady and clear, his mouth well formed with a generous bottom lip. His chin is square and his nose noble and straight. In adulthood he would hide his good looks behind a bushy beard.
But it is his expression that is most arresting; or, perhaps it would be better to say his gaze. This is not the gaze of a young man filled with dreams (or youthful indolence), but, rather the fierce look of a youth ready to grapple with the world. His brows knit in concentration, his mouth set with determination, the muscles of his face tense as he considers his next move. If not for the youthfulness of his hair and the smooth texture of his skin, this could easily be the portrait of an experienced soldier, a businessman of affairs, or a seasoned academic.
Friant paints his own countenance in a classical manner – the realism of his hair, his features, the representation of his eyes and mouth – nothing about the head would be out of place in the most classical, Academic of paintings. However, Friant’s brushwork becomes loser and less defined once we move away from his head. His shirt collar and tie are little more than generously painted suggestions, and his coat conveyed with sketchily applied gray, blue and white paint.
You could say that Friant’s early portrait seems to encompass all of the contradictions of his style and career – a naturalist painter finding a home in a modernist world. It is an interesting moment in our art history, one that we will look at again tomorrow with a later self-portrait.