Mystical Symbolism – Marcel-Béronneau, Séon and Osbert

25 Jul Mystical Symbolism – Marcel-Béronneau, Séon and Osbert

An extraordinary and controversial exhibition, Mystical Symbolism, has just opened at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, showing a range of paintings predominately by French artists such as Marcel-Béronneau, Alexandre Séon and Alphonse Osbert, but also Swiss (Ferdinand Hodler) and Belgian (Fernand Khnopff). The exhibition was given a long and erudite review in The New Yorker but with no recent US museum exhibitions dedicated to symbolism, this movement has not been as readily understood in journals whose staff have a narrow perspective of art made before the First World War.

Pierre-Amédée Marcel-Béronneau, Ondine, oil on canvas (Stair Sainty Gallery)

Pierre-Amédée Marcel-Béronneau, The Dream of Orpheus, gouache and body colour on paper (formerly Stair Sainty Gallery)

The artists who joined the Rose+Croix may not have been in sympathy with the post-impressionists, who eschewed any direct intellectual references in their art and were concerned with the contemporary and immediate, but they were no less willing to embrace radical styles and techniques. The influences of Gustave Moreau and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes are immediately apparent in the work of Marcel-Béronneau and Seon, but Puvis also influenced Picasso and Matisse, as was amply demonstrated in the large scale exhibition From Puvis de Chavannes to Matisse and Picasso – Toward Modern Art (Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 2002).

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Pablo Picasso’s, Massacre in Korea, 1951 was influenced by Puvis de Chavannes’s monumental Ludus Pro Patria that Picasso had first seen at the 1900 Universal Exhibition and of which a reduced variant is illustrated here.


The middle (formerly Stair Sainty Gallery) and right (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio) sections of the reduced scale version of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’ Ludus Pro Patria, was separated into two works by the artist.

The exhibition now at the Guggenheim explores the influence of the Rose-Croix movement and the Salons organised by Joséphin Péladan between 1892 and 1897 – the artists who joined this movement and exhibited at these Salons did not remain loyal to the cult but they did remain adherents to a symbolist vision which rejected the harsher realities of the contemporary world. Their work marks a distinct break with academic painting as well as romanticism and realism, and paralleled the Munich and Vienna secessions that emerged at the same time, although both of the latter were founded in a desire to break with academic historicism rather than having an intellectual foundation that paralleled Péladan’s vision. The radical German and Austrian movements were primarily opposed to the conservative tastes of the government establishment and were financially supported by left of centre and liberal writers and patrons – they were not confined to painting but also extended to the applied and decorative arts and architecture.

Marcel-Béronneau’s Orpheus in Hades provides the cover of the Guggenheim exhibition catalogue and is the main image illustrating this brief article. He is an artist whose original compositions and innovative painting manner owes much to his master Gustave Moreau but also to the German painter Franz von Stuck, who often painted similar subjects, even if he did not share the taste for the novel cult invented by Joséphin Péladan. Marcel-Béronneau briefly shared a studio with Georges Rouault but, aside from their shared experience as pupils of Gustave Moreau, they had little in common; while both remained figurative artists, they moved stylistically in quite different directions. Marcel-Béronneau’s fascination with powerful women was focused at the end of the first decade and beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century on the legendary Biblical women Salomé and Judith, both of them using their skills as seductress but in very different ways – one for personal vengeance the other to help save the Jewish people.


Pierre-Amédée Marcel-Béronneau, Salomé Throwing Off her Veils (formerly Stair Sainty Gallery) and Judith (formerly Stair Sainty Gallery)

Alexandre Séon has a very different approach to his art than Moreau and his pupils, owing a great deal to his teacher Puvis de Chavannes and, indeed, later competed with him for public commissions, as with this set of six sketches (of a set of eight, of which one is in the Musée Roybet Fould, Courbevoie), done for lunettes in the dining room of the Paris Hôtel de Ville (a commission never awarded). Séon’s Portrait of Joséphin Péladan is included in the Guggenheim exhibition is striking in that it presents Péladan as he wished to be seen, as a modern prophet.


Alexandre Séon, Joséphin Péladan (Lyon, Musée des Beaux Arts) and Alexandre Séon, L’Etoile (Stair Sainty Gallery)

 Alphonse Osbert was a fellow pupil of Henri Lehmann alongside Georges Seurat and Edmond Aman-Jean (who, while he was not associated with the Rose-Croix movement was another painter who embraced symbolism) and after an early passion for the great Spanish seventeenth century masters (something he shared with Manet), became an early adherent of the Salon des Independents, where he made the acquaintance of Puvis de Chavannes and Maurice Denis. Like René-Emile Ménard he espoused an idealised vision of a sublime world largely untroubled by the challenging images conjured up by artists such as Marcel-Béronneau, Jean Delville or Fernand Khnopff.

Alphonse Osbert, The Vision of Saint Genéviève (Paris, Musée d’Orsay)

Alphonse Osbert, Sleeping Muse (Stair Sainty Gallery)

This exhibition presents an audience hitherto largely unfamiliar with a movement contemporary with neo-impressionism (pointillism), the nabis and the dying embers of academic painting. These artist dealt not with everyday reality but with ideas, dreams and a sense of the mystical that have connections with some of the most interesting and innovative artists working today. 

Mystical Symbolism – Marcel-Béronneau, Séon and Osbert was last modified: August 1st, 2017 by Guy