Medium: Oil On Canvas
Size: 127 x 127 cm
Signed: and dated: Lévy-Dhurmer
the Artist, sold by him at an unknown date; Sotheby’s, New York, 27 May 1962; Stair Sainty Gallery, New York; [acquired through a New York agent by] Mrs. Joan Kroc, 1983; her estate 2006.
Paris, Salon National des Beaux Arts, 1899; Berlin, Exhibition of Modern French Art, number 11, November 1899.
After finishing with honours at the École communale supérieure de Dessin et Sculpture in the 11th arrondissement in 1885, and exhibiting at the Paris Salon in the years 1882 – 1889, Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer suddenly left Paris in 1889 for the Côte d’Azur; he remained absent for the next six years, wholly abandoning a still promising artistic career in Paris. In 1895, at almost thirty, he travelled to Italy where Venice and Florence particularly captivated him. This trip would cement a deep and life-long affinity to da Vinci and Italian Renaissance Art, as well as markedly re-focused Lévy-Dhurmer on his earlier artistic aims. It was life-altering; he returned to painting.
In late 1895, sometime before October, Lévy-Dhurmer, relocated in Paris and now painting full-time, was invited by the Belgian poet George Rodenbach to his home to draw his portrait. (The portrait, made three years after the publication of Bruges-la-Morte, which made Rodenbach a symbolist literary icon, is today in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris). This friendship was no doubt the force behind Lévy-Dhurmer’s first solo exhibition early the next year at the Galerie George Petit.
The show at the Petit Gallery, of around 25 pastel and 5 paintings, instantly established Lévy-Dhurmer’s reputation in Paris. One critic exclaimed “a youth, a debutant and also a master,” asking rhetorically if the artist was “Symbolist, Mystic, or Romantic.” Another critic likened him to “da Vinci, Botticelli and Memling, the ancients, the moderns…” Lévy-Dhurmer continued working as a celebrated portraitist, draughtsman, pastelist and painter of religious, genre, symbolist and landscape paintings until the Second World War.
Large scale gallery shows were organized to celebrate Lévy-Dhurmer’s career in 1927, and again in 1937; upon the artist’s death in 1952 a retrospective exhibition was organized by the French Museums in Paris. More recently again, a further exhibition was organized by the Louvre at the Grand Palais in 1973, Autour de Lévy-Dhurmer, to celebrate the acquisition of a group of major pastels now hanging in the Musée d’Orsay.
Possibly the most ambitious project of Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer’ s career was a large scale triptych, of which the painting here, Passion, was the central panel. The left and right panels, now lost, showed (we know from photographs and a reduction of the triptych in pastel), the nude figure of Eve smiling at the serpent, titled Emotion, on the left side, and Regrets, a single figure with her back to the viewer, on the right.
Though Lévy-Dhurmer’ s style drew on the Renaissance masters, and he owed, like Maurice Denis, a debt to Puvis de Chavannes, one must also insist upon the influence of the pre-Raphaelites, particularly that of Burne-Jones. The 1878 Burne-Jones exhibition had an immediate impact on the Paris art scene, and while Passion shows the artist fully absorbed Gustave Moreau’ s highly-wrought and ornate style, the figures of Eve of the now lost side panels evoked Burne-Jones: his figures of Venus and Andromeda can be seen in Lévy-Dhurmer’ s respective Eves. Rodin and Gauguin also both treated the subject of Eve contemporarily, but while Rodin’ s Eve covers her face in shame, and Gauguin redeemed Eve is an idyllic image of his Tahitian wife, Tehura, Lévy-Dhurmer turned Eve’ s back to the viewer, making her gently modest in Regrets; the pose contrasted sharply with the unself-conscious nudity of Emotion.
Léon Thévenin said of Levy-Dhurmer’ s Eve that ‘the woman exiled from Eden is a symbol of the pagan world, of the rule of nature and of the senses’ as much as she is a feminine biblical icon or cautionary tale. His triptych depicted the feminine, but also a singular aspect of the human condition: our content enslavement (the serpent literally shackles Eve’ s ankle) to our passions.
On the 1st August 1899 the Direction of the Beaux Arts proposed the acquisition of this work from Lévy-Dhurmer for the Musée de Luxembourg (the collection that would become the present-day Musée d’ Orsay). The artist refused the 4000 francs offered and sent the painting to Berlin, on exhibition. After failing to secure the purchase of a further large-scale painting by Lévy-Dhurmer, in 1901 the state commissioned a similar painting of Eve in an Eden like setting, La Première Floraison, for 6000 francs. It was completed in 1903, and used as a tapestry cartoon, although it has since been lost.