Yesterday we looked at a boyish self-portrait by Émile Friant (1863-1932), executed when he was just 15 years old. Today we jump ahead nine years, to 1887, when our artist was a young man of 24 years.
One of the things that fascinate me most about Friant is that his style and philosophy of painting seemed ingrained so early. In the self-portrait at 15, Friant sought to capture his own visage in the most realistic manner possible while delineating his shirt, cravat and jacket in the most Impressionistic manner. That (perhaps uneasy) truce is still much in evidence for this later picture.
First, let’s look at Friant. The Friant of this picture is still a very young man, but also an accomplished artist. He is one scant year away from winning the grand prize at the Paris Salon and two years from the gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris and the ribbon of the Legion of Honor. His hair, once luxuriant, has thinned early and his face has thickened considerably. His generous bottom lip is now more generous still, his nose flatter and the once square jaw has become unfortunately jowly. He also has grown the bushy red beard behind which he would hide the rest of his life.
One thing that has not left him, however, is the intensity of his gaze. That sense of challenge, that note of preparedness to meet adversity is still very much intact. In fact, the gaze of the earlier portrait is perhaps inner-directed, as if mercilessly scrutinizing his own capabilities and zeal before the battle; the gaze here is a man sizing up the world and marshaling those forces within prior to battle. It’s a remarkably naked look – not romanticized in any way, frank, openly ambitious, curious and intelligent.
Please compare the now thickened face with the hand holding the brush. Such delicacy of touch, such tapered and exacting fingers -- Friant paints his artist-hands with all the fidelity and realism of the face. Both stand out in marked contrast to the manner in which the rest of the picture is executed.
Again, once away from his own very human flesh, Friant uses the tropes of Impressionism to render his own figure. Look at the arm connected to that so-delicately-painted hand: the paint is applied thickly, the folds and grooves of the sleeve suggested with swathes of color, leading up to the collar of the smock which is nothing but indistinct suggestions. The informality of the style matches his informality of dress: not only is Friant in his artist’s smock, but he wears no tie (unlike his 15 year old self). The easel (or canvas) upon which he paints seems indistinct of contour (especially the outer line facing the artist), and the color of the back side of the easel/canvas colored and toned with obvious brushwork.
Look, too, at how he captures the outside world beyond the windows with uncomplicated masses of white, gray and beige paint. There is a gate beyond the window (and perhaps a tree), but the bars are not rendered with the same exactitude as his own face and hand. The studio around him is also gray, with a sketchy bit of design work next to the window.
One of the most fascinating things about the 1887 self portrait is the figure outside the window (and behind a wall, it seems). A man turns towards the window and looks inside the studio at the artist. Who is this shadowy figure? Is Friant making a comment on his own self-directed gaze, or perhaps articulating ourselves as we look at him? Is Friant separating the artist from the rest of society? (This is possible as Friant, sans tie and in smock, embodies the image of the artist that was a caricature even in his own day.) Or perhaps it is the critic, looking over Friant’s shoulder and commenting upon work from which he is far removed? It is just one of the many questions that come to mind when regarding this fascinating, neglected artist.