General Paintings

Emile Bernard and Early Abstraction in Brittany

Emile Bernard (1868-1941), Eglise et Ferme Bretonne, 1892. Est. $40,000-70,000. The Collection of Dr. Abraham and Carolyn Schlossman. Lot 229. Auction Sept 17.

NEW YORK, NY -- Emile Bernard was still in his teens when he joined Fernand Cormon's renowned studio, where he studied alongside and befriended fellow artists Louis Anquetin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh. Feeling detached from the dominant style of Impressionism and restricted by his formal instruction, Bernard began to express radical ideas on painting that were largely out of favor in the Parisian art world. In 1886 he set his sights on Brittany and traveled extensively along the northwestern coastline, a destination which would provide a major breakthrough for the artist and a turning point in the history of modern art.

In many ways Brittany was antithetical to Paris, and it helped Bernard find the source of his visual language through which he would come to develop his theories on art and painting. He found little inspiration in the rapid industrialization of the French capital and its self-indulgent denizens, which contrasted sharply with what he saw in the remote region of northwestern France. Breton life and culture became an ideal subject matter for Bernard, who found sincerity in the rural sense of community and agrarian activity of the region's inhabitants. Together with their spirituality, these constitute the essence of Emile Bernard's subjects during the most notable period of his work from the late 1880s and early 1890s. In a rather Tolstoyan manner, Bernard's high regard for his subjects runs through these works, pointing to an idealized, simpler past that is highly authentic and human.

In Pont-Aven, Emile Bernard was introduced to Paul Gauguin. The two artists shared a highly productive, collaborative, but ultimately turbulent relationship that built the foundations of some of the first Post-Impressionist movements. Alongside Louis Anquetin, Bernard had already outlined the style of painting he aspired to—characterized by an emphasis on flatness and dark contours—which would later be termed Cloissonism. Gauguin was very much drawn to Bernard's firm rejection of established principles in visual representation and the two artists worked together to expand on Post-Impressionist tenets that would culminate in Synthetism, which combined simplified forms and purity of color while allowing space for the inner world of emotion. Bernard and his peers thus sought to break from the hegemony of pure technique pushed by Impressionism while elevating the value of feelings, memory and imagination over objective reality alone.

In Eglise et Ferme Bretonne, the viewer can see the Cloissonist and Synthetist styles to full effect. Together with flat planes of uniform color, the artist has assembled boldly outlined geometric shapes to form a full composition. Solid greens and yellows are employed in the two structures, a house in the foreground and a church beyond. A central tree shares the color of the adjacent roof, dividing the composition vertically and helping to create a sense of depth. The tree's spindly branches meet those of another plant that emerges from the extreme lower corner of the composition, further enhancing the unusual perspective and red outlines that exemplify Bernard's technique. In the distance we see an unpretentious church, prompting the viewer to consider its simplicity as emblematic of the humility shared with those who frequent that space. If Impressionism is linked to capturing a moment in time, the viewer can sense something timeless about this scene. One has an underlying desire to embark on a voyage through Brittany and to come across this view, hopefully unchanged more than a century after it was painted. From the most important period of Emile Bernard's work, Eglise et Ferme Bretonne projects the artist's innovative approach to painting and the extent to which he was fundamentally subversive in pushing forward abstraction in the closing years of the 19th century.

Important Paintings

A highlights of the Important Paintings auction on September 17, 2020 is Emile Bernard's Eglise et Ferme Bretonne.

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Portrait of specialist Milan Tessler
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General Paintings
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