Van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard

July 27, 2018 at 12:35 pm (Art, France, Smithsonian Associates World Art History Certificate Program)

Self-portrait with Grey Felt Hat, 1887

Les peintres du petit boulevard. So they were called, first probably by Van Gogh himself. On a recent Saturday, my “art partner” Jean and I went to a Smithsonian program about these artists. The lecturer was art historian Bonita Billman, two of whose presentations we’ve already attended and greatly enjoyed.

When attending a function of this sort, one always hopes to receive a handout replete with definitions of terms, bibliography, and other enriching information. This Ms Billman provided. Here are the first two paragraphs of the handout:

Vincent Van Gogh spent 1886 to 1888 in Paris, living with his brother Theo, an art dealer. Theo’s connections with the avant-garde art world gave Van Gogh a quick and intensive contemporary art education as he was drawn into a social and artistic circle of like-minded painters that included Pissarro, Seurat, Signac, Gauguin, Laval, Bernard, Anquetin, and Toulouse-Lautrec. He called the rising group the Painters of the Petit Boulevard to distinguish them from the established and successful impressionists like Monet, Degas, and Renoir.

Van Gogh’s time among these young artists was among the most influential in his brief life. In searching for his own style, he rapidly passed through approaches including impressionism and divisionism, lightening his Dutch-inspired palette and breaking up his brushstrokes. He conceived the idea of his fellow artists joining him in a community he called the Studio of the South – a colony that never came to pass.

Divisionism is defined by Ms Billman in her handout as a “…painting technique making use of color theory in which the application of dots of complementary colors heightens their luminosity…” This is similar to pointillism, a term greatly disliked by Seurat, to whose work it was principally applied.

Seurat’s most celebrated painting, Un dimanche après-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte, holds pride of place in the Art Institute of Chicago, where my granddaughter, a Chicago resident, is always happy to encounter it.

More art by painters in this group:

Avenue de Clichy, Louis Anquetin

 

Portrait of Felix Feneon, by Paul Signac

 

Laborer at Celeyran, by Toulouse-Lautrec

 

Une Bergère Bretonne (a Breton shepherdess), by Paul Gauguin  1886

 

Bathers at Asnières by Seurat, 1884

 

Elégante de profil au Bal Mabille, 1888

 

And there she is again, Grandma’s little art lover!

I saved Camille Pissarro for last because I’ve fallen deeply in love  with his paintings, especially  the early works. This just happened – honestly! Here are several:

Road in a Forest, 1859

 

Paisaje tropical con casas rurales y palmeras, 1853

 

Entrée du village de Voisins, 1872

 

Two women chatting by the sea, 1856

To me, there is something magical about these two women. I imagine they are talking over some small, mundane matter as they stand by the sea, bathed in the calm and beautiful sunshine. Some time ago I titles a post  about the art of Vermeer, ‘Quotidian moment, frozen in time.’ The same phrase might be applied, I think, to this painting.

In these works, Pissarro shows an almost uncanny way of capturing light, especially sunlight at a certain time of day. In 1885, he began studying With Seurat and Signac, adopting for a time their Divisionist technique:

La Récolte des Foins, Eragny (1887)

Pretty, but I rue the absence of that special light. At any rate, after a few short years, Pissarro abandoned the neo-Impressonist style, claiming that

‘It was impossible to be true to my sensations and consequently to render life and movement, impossible to be faithful to the effects, so random and so admirable, of nature, impossible to give an individual character to my drawing, [that] I had to give up,’

[From John Rewald’s biography of Pissarro, quoted in the Wikipedia entry.]

The artists of the petit boulevard frequently painted and drew one another:

Émile Bernard by Toulouse-Lautrec, 1886

 

Paul Signac, by Georges Seurat, 1890

The above portrait is executed in conté-crayon, defined in Wikipedia as  “a drawing medium composed of compressed powdered graphite or charcoal mixed with a wax or clay base, square in cross-section.” The entry goes on to further elucidate:

They were invented in 1795 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté, who created the combination of clay and graphite in response to the shortage of graphite caused by the Napoleonic Wars (the British naval blockade of France prevented import). Conté crayons had the advantage of being cost-effective to produce, and easy to manufacture in controlled grades of hardness.

Van Gogh, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1887

 

Henri de Toulouse-Laurec by Louis Anquetin, 1886

Although Toulouse-Lautrec painted numerous different scenes and portraits, his fame rests largely on his depictions of the patrons and the performers at the Moulin Rouge:

Bal au Moulin Rouge

And here it is, brought to vivid, joyous life in the 1952 film Moulin Rouge. Watch carefully: About a third of the way in, you’ll see Toulouse-Lautrec’s hands sketching the scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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