Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Chelles, by Léon Augustin Lhermitte

Today we continue our weeklong look at the life and art of Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1844 – 1925). 

This July marks the 170th birthday of the artist, who is currently represented in museums around the world.  His work can be found in Amsterdam, Boston, BrusselsChicagoFlorenceMontrealMoscowParisRheims, and Washington, DC.  Amazingly, outside of academia and a handful of aesthetes, he is largely forgotten.

L'hermitte showed artistic talent as a boy and his upbringing in the rural village of Mont Saiint-Père in Picardie provided him with the subjects and landscapes that would become the staples of his oeuvre. In 1863 left his home for the Petit Ecole in Paris where he studied with Horace Lecocq de Boisbaudran (1838-1912).  He would also form a life-long friendship with Jean Charles Cazin (1840-1901), and became acquainted with celebrated artists Alphonse Legros (1837-1911), Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), and Auguste Rodin (1840-1917).  He made his debut at the Salon of 1864, where his charcoal drawings revealed that he had a sure touch in depicting the natural world. His first work, Bords de Marne près d'Alfort, caused a sensation, and L'hermitte gained a reputation for being as capable with oils as with pastel and charcoal.

He would win many honors, including the Legion of Honour in 1884, where he was made an officer in 1894 and a commander in 1911. He was elected a member of the Institute in 1905. In 1890 he was one of the founding members of the Société National des Beaux-Arts, of which he was later elected Vice-President.

Lhermitte’s graphic work became more popular after as he exhibited regularly at the Salon, though he still hadn’t attained his desired level of success.  That changed when one of his paintings, Paying the Harvesters (1882), was purchased by the state and hung in the Luxembourg museum before being transferred to the Hotel de Ville at Chateau-Thierry.  This led to many commissions and established Lhermitte as an artist of rustic life.  As scholar Gabriel Weisberg observed:  to Lhermitte, rustic activity embodied dignity, for he believed workers in the fields seldom complained … Bolstering these ways of representing workers were the locales in which Lhermitte places his figures.  The countryside was seldom dour or depressing, the atmosphere often appeared light and airy … and the environment seemed spacious.

Lhermitte was called the singer of wheat by critics and devotees, but he was also adept at interior scenes of peasant life at home, often emphasizing the effects of light in his pictures.  He also concentrated on images of mother and child, as well as women in domestic scenes, such as doing laundry along the Marne.  In these cases, Lhermitte combined each of his interests to create his compositions.   

In today’s picture, Lhermitte once again creates an almost mystical sense of place with a few loose strokes of pastel.  This piece, 13x17, conveys the heavy shadows and suggestive lighting of early dawn or late dusk; the light renders the tree branches indistinct and vague, while the landscape reflected on the water is almost indistinguishable from the landscape itself.

And there, in the corner, almost as if Lhermitte was purposely recreating something pinging the corner of our eye, we see a figure emerge from the water.  It takes a moment – perhaps one blink – to confirm that it is the figure of a woman, escaping into the woodland like a mythical figure.

Without being able to see it in my hand, I believe the paper is blue-toned, which allowed Lhermitte to create the distant mountains and a reflected sky with nothing more than blank space.  The use of white chalk on the water, of course, creates a sense of movement and a dappling effect.

This is no grand scene from a history painting – it is not Dante and Beatrice or the Death of Caesar.  No, this is, instead, the moment that passes by all to swiftly, and remains locked in our memory.  If yesterday Lhermitte managed to make us know a group of women just by their body language, with this picture he recreates one of those passing moments that remain, in some uncanny sense, eternal.

More Lhermette tomorrow!

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