Medium: Pastel On Paper
Size: 84 x 54 cm
(Probably) Paris, Société de Pastellistes Français, 1912, under 73-76.
The subject of this evocative pastel may be identified with certainty from the sketch of the same subject (29 x 24 cm) that was included in the 1973 exhibition at the Grand Palais, Autour de Lévy-Dhurmer – Visionnaires et Intimistes en 1900. While Lévy-Dhurmer continued to concentrate his energies on the portrayal of women, he had begun to introduce significant landscape elements into his work in the later 1890s. He was influenced in this vision most notably by Whistler, but also by the series paintings of Monet which led him to execute a similar series of experiments with views of the Bosphorous and Constantinople.
The sketch for this work was dedicated to “Perla” the name he gave his future wife, Emmy Fournier, whom he married in 1914; a leading figure in contemporary literary circles as the editor of the weekly feminist journal, La Fronde. It hung in their bedchamber until her death in 1944 and remained in his until his death at the age of 88, nine years later. The finished work was almost certainly among the views of Mountains exhibited in Paris and dates from one of his several trips to the region in 1910-11, when he also painted a view of Lake Garda, now in a Paris private collection.
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 the twentieth 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. They all trained in the Academic tradition but rejected it for highly individualist styles which are instantly recognizable 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 well into 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 d’Orsay).
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 Eden 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; the extent to which he was influenced by Puvis de Chavannes and Gustave Moreau can only be measured in considering those paintings which demonstrate an obvious visual debt.
In 1901 he traveled to Spain and thence to Holland and Brittany, where Gauguin had first idealized the Breton peasant in raw color, 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 favored medium throughout his subsequent career. In the last decade of the nineteenth and the first decade of the twentieth 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).
His attempts to translate the aural images of musical idiom into two dimensional expression on canvas was an innovative contribution to symbolist art. While Fantin-Latour had been inspired by the works of Wagner (among others), Lévy-Dhurmer’s response and interpretation is less textual.