Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Au Lavoir (The Washhouse), by Léon Augustin Lhermitte

After a brief hiatus, The Jade Sphinx returns with a weeklong look at artist Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1844 – 1925).  Lhermitte was a French painter and etcher who primarily depicted rural scenes and peasant workers.  He was born in Mont-Saint-Père, and was student of Lecoq de Boisbaudran (1838-1912).  Lhermitte gained recognition after his show in the Paris Salon in 1864.  His many awards include the French Legion of Honour (1884) and the Grand Prize at the Exposition Universelle in 1889. Lhermitte died in Paris in 1925.

Lhermitte lived in the Aisne until he was about 20, developing a deep and abiding love of rural life, which became the focus of his work – often creating images of the work and daily life in the countryside of his time.

He came from a humble family and for many years earned his living with minor engraving work in France and England, before winning recognition at the Salon from 1874. Fame came after 1880, when the artist successively entered several large paintings depicting the life and people of his native village of Mont-Saint-Père. His pictures The Cabaret in 1881, Paying the Harvesters in 1882, and The Harvest in 1883, used the same figures which can be identified from one painting to another.

Though many 19th Century artists relied on imagery introduced by earlier generations of painters, they also re-envisioned these older themes by executing them with progressive techniques.  Lhermitte took the recognized imagery of peasant and rural life and revitalized these themes by using more contemporary media, such as pastels.  His impact was felt on artists of the time -- Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) who wrote that, If every month Le Monde llustré 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.

Lhermitte’s passion for the rural landscape was shared by fellow-artists and modern audiences alike, and his work helped perpetuate the image of rural life and landscape into the 20th Century.    

In today’s picture, Au Lavoir (The Washhouse), we see Lhermette’s masterful command of the rural idiom.  This is charcoal and pastel on paper (19x24), and the artist creates a touching and homey scene with these basic materials.  Four women are doing the chore of cleaning clothes for their families – and from the poses of women, it is clear that this is a regular ritual.  The women position themselves to reduce the wear-and-tear on themselves, and they look at one-another to exchange the latest gossip. 

For this picture, Lhermette’s worked on beige-toned paper, allowing the paper itself to create the clay-colored background of the earth and the stones of the cistern.  The stones are mostly suggested, rather than slavishly depicted, and the trees and sod of the rolling hillside are a few deft touches of charcoal and pastel. 

Lhermette uses white chalk to create a little pathway from the countryside to the cistern, creating a distinctive social space within the countryside.  The Washhouse of Lhermette’s imagination is a social square of the simplest sort, where housework, gossip and simple country connections take place.

What is amazing about this piece is that with these component parts, Lhermette creates a whole life.  We know these women, and their lives, and the day-to-day  routines on which they run.  It is a remarkably human and subtle piece of work.

More Lhermette tomorrow!

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