Lévy-Dhurmer, Lucien

Algiers 1865 - Le Vésinet 1953
Biography & List of works

Quatuor de Calanques : Matin

Quatuor de Calanques : Matin


Size: 80 x 63 cm

In 1936 Lévy-Dhurmer exhibited, under the musical title Quatuor de Calanques, four pastels of the same landscape of water and sharp white cliffs. Each of the four views showed the light of a different time of the day: Matin, 6 heures du soir, Crépuscule, and Nocturne.

The intellectual pre-occupations which produced the symbolist movement provide a counterpoint to the parallel advances of the post-impressionist style of Vuillard and Bonnard and the Fauves of the first decade of this century. Alphonse Osbert, Maurice Denis, Aman Jean, Clairin, Maxence and the youthful Lévy-Dhurmer – the “painters of the soul” – exemplify a different aspect of symbolist expression which, by the First World War seems out of touch with contemporary artistic trends. Nonetheless, the Belgian Fernand Khnopf’s haunting images and enigmatic creations remain highly sought after, as does the work of Gustav Klimt, who responded to many of the same influences as his French counterparts. They all trained in the Academic tradition but rejected it for highly individualist styles which are instantly recognisable today. Khnopff, Aman-Jean, L. W. Hawkins and Osbert, disciples of the Rose-Croix movement founded in Belgium, remain Lévy-Dhurmer’s closest artistic link. His comparative youth meant that he continued their traditions even into the second half of the twentieth century. His successes not only included large scale paintings in oils, but more intimate works in pastel and some highly perceptive portraits. The latter include his well-known Portrait of Rodenbach, an icon of symbolist portraiture (Paris, Musée de l’Art Moderne).

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.

The earliest influences on Lévy-Dhurmer were historical; his first works were compared to paintings from the Florentine renaissance and may well have been inspired by a trip to Italy in 1895. Among these may be cited his Medusa and Circé and other images that pay tribute to the sinuous forms of Botticelli’s Venus and her attendants. The artist made no effort to mimic Quattrocento painting styles, however, and his technique remained firmly rooted in post-impressionism, with obvious references to the late symbolist style of Henri Fantin-Latour. His choice of religious images such as the ethereal Adam and Eve of 1900 does not indicate a positive attachment to spirituality but rather an excuse to reinterpret an ancient subject. At the same time, one of his most dramatic works, La Bourrasque (the gust of wind), which he painted for the first time in 1896 and treated in different formats in both oils and pastels, owes nothing to the past. It is a brilliant and disturbing image of a woman caught in a sudden storm: she holds her hands to her ears, her mouth open in shock and terror while the autumn leaves are swept past. His first teachers, Collin, Viot and Wallet seem to have left only a modest legacy in his subsequent work; neither does he seem to owe much to the giants of academic symbolism of the last half of the century, Puvis de Chavannes and Gustave Moreau.

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…”

In 1901 he traveled to Spain and thence to Holland and Brittany, where Gauguin had first idealised the Breton peasant in raw colour, inspiring both Maurice Denis and Albert Besnard. Lévy-Dhurmer, however, preferred a more refined technique and his portrayal of Breton peasant life may be better compared to the works of Bastien-Lepage and Dagnan-Bouveret. His next journey, to Morocco, further broadened his horizons and a hint of Orientalist fantasy frequently reoccurs in much of his subsequent work. Traveling in North Africa and then Turkey he made greater use of pastels, easier to carry and use when traveling, and they remained a favoured medium throughout his subsequent career. In the first decade of the century he produced much of his best work, notably Les Aveugles de Tanger, 1901 (Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne), and the Mère Bretonne (Musée de Brest).

Large scale gallery shows were organised to celebrate Lévy-Dhurmer’s career in 1927, and again in 1937; upon the artist’s death in 1952 a retrospective exhibition was organised by the French Museums in Paris. More recently again, a further exhibition was organised 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.