Friday, June 13, 2014

The Reading Lesson, by Léon Augustin Lhermitte

Today we conclude our weeklong look at the life and art of Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1844 – 1925), celebrating the 170th anniversary of his birth. 

Lhermitte’s earliest experience with the arts was copying pictures in popular illustrated magazines and studying the work of other French painters.  His school-teacher father encouraged his work by allowing him to sketch.  As the boy’s talents expanded, his father showed his drawings to Count Walewski, then minister at the École des Beaux-Arts.  Walewski was impressed, and offered the boy a scholarship of 600 francs, permitting him to enroll in the École Impériale de Dessin.  Here he was introduced to a type of study of drawing that was based on memorization, a technique also used by James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).  In this way he could view a scene, especially a landscape scene, and employ his memories to more fully execute the painting back in his studio. 

Lhermitte took part in both the Exposition Universelle in 1900, where he served as a member of the jury, and, the Exposition des Pastellistes.  In the latter part of his career, Lhermitte moved away from representing the human figure and concentrated more and more on landscape.  Figures in space lost their individual identity, and became part of the larger landscape composition.  At the same time, though, he also increased his focus on images of mother and child, as seen in today’s picture.

In his older age, Lhermitte stayed close to his home and executed several landscape pastels based on the banks of the Marne, which was near his studio, and other landscapes near his home.  He was decorated with several honors from across Europe, such as the Chevalier of the Order of St. Michael in Germany, and his works were regularly acquired by the state after initial exhibition.  His life and career ended on July 28, 1925 in Paris.  His reputation would wane considerably, but Lhermitte gained new cultural currency in the 1990s, when he was reappraised by an exposition at the Musée d’Orsay.

Here, Lhermitte moves away from the primacy of the landscape and back to the human scale.  With The Reading Lesson, Lhermitte celebrates simple motherhood and even simpler pleasures.  The centrality of the mother as wellspring of a food, support, education and emotion succor was a theme to which he would return regularly.  Did Lhermitte miss his mother… or, perhaps, was his mother absent, and he missed what he never knew?  I have not been able to discover the answer to this question … but many artists (be they writers or painters or musicians) who focus on an idealized past, often do so because they feel as if they had missed some vital emotional connection in early life.  It’s possible that, to Lhermitte, The Reading Lesson is a fantasy painting.

Most critics agree that Lhermitte’s oil paintings are not as aesthetically pleasing as his drawings, and The Reading Lesson is a case in point.

Here, as with his pastel work, Lhermitte renders details vague with a few, loose brushstrokes.  He dapples the hair of the little girl and the bangs of the mother with white to emphasize the golden light which fills the background sky, and washes out the distant hill, as well. 

Also, it seems that Lhermitte’s formidable sense of composition plays him false here.   In other drawings we have seen, the composition is such that it leads the eye around the canvas, taking in the human figures and landscape, alike.  Here, Lhermitte plants his central figures dead-center, and provides no tension for the eye.  It is a very static composition.

For all of its sweetness, I am not nearly as enamored of this painting as I was of the drawings seen earlier this week.  It seems too soft, too diffuse, as if Lhermitte was using a visual shorthand to inspire our emotional response.  In other drawings, the fact that the figures were vague and indistinct added to the mystery of their actions and interactions.  That same indistinctness is markedly unsuccessful when the intention of the picture and the emotions involved are more concrete and precise.  It is almost as if his loose style works well with ambiguity, but descends into disposable sentiment when taking a more defined direction. 

Finally, the two figures lack the humanity-in-all-its-flaws quality of the three drawings we looked at.  These are idealized figures, not actual peasants or laborers.  When a painting would not be out of place on a Hallmark card, we must question its overall success.

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