Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Washers Along the Marne, by Léon Augustin Lhermitte

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

Though a celebrated painter, Lhermitte was more importantly one of the great draughtsmen of the era, who created work in charcoal and pastel of deep and profound beauty.  His pastels contributed to the increased use of the medium in the latter half of the 19th Century, and his work influenced the Impressionists. 

Lhermitte began using pastels in 1885, just one year before he exhibited for the first time at the Société des Pastellistes Français.   He submitted a dozen pastels which depicted daily life in the areas of Mont-Saint-Père and also his travels to Vittel, Berneval, Laren, and Wissant.  These works and public exhibitions were an important step in the acceptance of the pastel.  He became a mentor to a group of young pastellistes; and he grew to love the medium so, that he would almost abandon charcoal drawing.   

Lhermitte became famous in England after traveling there in 1869, and again after the Commune of 1871.  He hit his stride when celebrated art dealer Durand-Ruel bought several of his charcoal drawings and invited him to participate in his “Black and White” exhibition.  This resulted in a great critical success for Lhermitte and a large British client-base. 

As his fame with charcoal and pastels grew, he was contacted by another international dealer, Wallis, who had galleries in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States.  As scholar Monique Le Pelley Fontenay writes, During his lifetime Lhermitte was very highly regarded in Anglo-Saxon countries where the picturesque and the healthy values celebrated in his painting and pastels were particularly appreciated.  Values of work and family appear frequently in his work.  Like Jules Breton and Rosa Bonheur, Lhermitte was appreciated because he represented the “good old days” … Throughout his life Lhermitte pointedly ignored the Industrial Revolution, fixing instead on the image of society before its disappearance, the vision of a paradise lost for the citizens of big cities, of a time frozen outside the march of history.         

Since we here at The Jade Sphinx have made a life out of pointedly trying to ignore the modern world, we understand Lhermitte’s mission.  In today’s picture, The Washers Along the Marne, we have a deceptively simple composition.  Notice how Lhermitte’s placement of the figures triangulates our gaze from the three figures to the landscape background and back again.  Reading left-to-right, our eye is caught in a loop as it goes from left-most figure to right-most figure, the Marne, and back again. 

Look, too, as his mastery of body language.  Though simple country women, they bear their labors with a stoic dignity; in fact, you can almost feel the continual and routine toil on their shoulders.

And Lhermitte uses his pastel to such economic effect.  We are never bombarded with information, but what he provides us speaks volumes.  The two faces that we can see clearly are not delineated with academic precision, but the lines are suggestive of deep emotion.  Is the seated woman leaning back with a look of fatigue?  Regret?  Or merely making a point?  And the standing figure – is that realization or surrender?  We cannot be sure, but the emotional quotient remains high because the figures are completely human and engaged with one-another.

Equally eloquent is the figure with her back to us; keeping her head down, and almost sheepishly reaching for the next piece of washing, she clearly does not wish to be part of the exchange between the other two.  Or, equally likely, she is listening where she is not wanted.

I admire this picture greatly.  There is so much information and so much economy of style and execution.  There is a sense of dusk, almost an end-of-day (or end-or-era) feel to the picture, that one might be tempted to call it homespun melancholy.  With his muted colors and grave faces, Lhermitte depicts loss by simply illustrating a passing moment.

More Lhermette tomorrow!

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