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Printmakers in the Cafés of Paris

A new print installation at the IMA explores Pont-Aven School artists’ interest in the cafés, cabarets, and dance halls of Paris, and their engagement with the most innovative portrayer of nightlife in fin-de-siècle Paris, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  The prints reveal the attention that Pont-Aven School artists paid to the pleasures and entertainments of modern urban life as an alternative to the nostalgic, rural Breton themes for which they are generally known.

The Pont-Aven School formed around Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard in the 1880s and 1890s in the French province of Brittany. The artists in this circle were attracted to the rugged landscape and the colorful traditions of the Breton people served as inspiration. While the Pont-Aven artists are mostly known for their Breton scenes, they also reveled in the intellectual and social life of Paris. They visited galleries, attended concerts and plays, and gathered in the cafés and cabarets frequented by other artists, writers, and philosophers.

Many of the avant-garde artists of Paris focused on the cafés and dance halls of Montmartre, the working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of the city that became the heart of a lively, bohemian, racy entertainment industry that lured thrill-seeking audiences. Cheap rents in the neighborhood attracted up-and-coming artists and performers to move there, and find their subjects there. Raucous Montmartre—with its unbridled, tawdry, garish, provocative energy—was both their lifestyle and their artistic subject.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901), "At the Moulin Rouge: A Rude! A True Rude!," 1893. Lithograph. Gift of Phillipa Hughes, 2004.166

Born into an aristocratic family, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec began to draw at an early age and after injuries and disease left him partially disabled and socially marginalized, he embarked on a career as an artist. He moved to Montmartre in 1886, where he concentrated on documenting the characters of bohemian Paris. In paintings, prints, and drawings, he excelled at capturing people in their working environment, and at capturing crowd scenes populated by highly individualized figures. His compositions strip individuals down to their most salient physical characteristics in a manner that is both sympathetic and dispassionate.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901), "May Milton," 1895. Color lithograph. Gift of Frances B. and J. William Julian, 2003.110.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s bold poster designs secured lasting fame for an intriguing assortment of café-concert performers in Paris.  In fact, the fame of the English dancer May Milton rests almost entirely on Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster. According to critics, Milton, known as the “English Miss,” was short on both talent and physical beauty. Rather than idealize her appearance, Toulouse-Lautrec highlights her unusual physical features as a means of creating a visual identity for the dancer, so that her strong jaw and high kicks are instantly recognizable.

The artists of the Pont-Aven School were influenced not only by Toulouse-Lautrec’s subject matter, but also by his style. Their Parisian prints share Toulouse-Lautrec’s caricature-like treatment of faces, swiftly sketched contour lines, flattened forms, and layering of light and dark forms in order to create a sense of space and depth.

Armand Séguin may have met Toulouse-Lautrec through their mutual friend and colleague Emile Bernard. However the artistic contact came about, Séguin’s café themes are indebted to Toulouse-Lautrec.

Armand Séguin (French, 1869-1903), "The Café," 1893. Etching, aquatint and roulette. Gift of Samuel Josefowitz in tribute to Brett Waller and Ellen Lee, 1998.219.

A distinct difference in style exists between Séguin’s prints of Paris themes and his Pont-Aven subjects (see Primavera and Evening or The Gleaner, among other examples in the IMA’s collection). Paul Gauguin had commented on this stylistic difference, criticizing that the Paris works were too much like posters or caricatures.[1] In Séguin’s The Café, flat patterns silhouetted against each other create convoluted, twisting forms. The exuberant drawing style and caricatural features of the figures are reminiscent of works by Toulouse-Lautrec. The women who populate Séguin’s cafés are lightly flirtatious, but the looming dark forms and the sense of agitation created by the rhythmic lines render the atmosphere of the scenes vaguely sinister.

Printmakers in the Cafés of Paris is on view in the Jane H. Fortune Gallery through August.

[1] Paul Gauguin, “Préface,” Armand Seguin, Le Barc de Boutteville Gallery (exh. cat).), Paris, 1895, p. 10.


Painted Sketches from the Eighteenth Century

One of the great artistic achievements of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the proliferation of monumental paintings for the walls and ceilings of churches and palaces throughout Europe. These elaborate decorative ensembles were the result of carefully designed programs developed by artists in collaboration with patrons and advisors. These large, often figure-filled compositions were the result of careful processes of visual planning, in which reduced-scale sketches painted in oil played an important role.

Most painted sketches were never intended to be displayed publicly, but rather were made as tools in the creative process. They were used to experiment with ideas for a composition, to propose a composition to a patron, or to record a finished painting for future reference. Preliminary painted sketches could be very rough in appearance, mapping out the artist’s first thoughts about a composition, or more finished exercises that laid out not only elements of the composition, but also served as studies of color and light.

Sebastiano Conca (Italian, 1680–1764), "The Madonna Appearing to St. Philip Neri," 1740, James E. Roberts Fund, 71.6

This lively, loosely painted sketch is a preliminary study for a large altarpiece in the Pilo e Calvello Chapel, Sant’Ignazio Martire all’Olivella (formerly San Filippo Neri), Palermo, commissioned from Conca at the height of his fame in 1739-40. In these years, Conca led a large and busy workshop in Rome and served as the director of the Roman academy. Unwilling to relocate to complete such commissions, Conca would have sent small preliminary sketches like this to his patron in Sicily for approval before undertaking the final full-scale altarpiece. Two additional painted sketches and one drawing related to the altarpiece also survive, with slight variations between them that indicate Conca’s exacting approach to composition.

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Nature and Abstraction

Roderic O’Conor, "Sunlight through a Cloud," 1893, etching, Gift of Samuel Josefowitz in tribute to Bret Waller and Ellen Lee, 1998.258

The Synthetist prints currently on view in Nature and Abstraction in Pont-Aven School Prints approach traditional landscape subjects with the stylistic freedom and experimentation characteristic of the innovative spirit of the Pont-Aven School. This group formed around Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard in the 1880s and 1890s in the French province of Brittany, where the rugged landscape and the colorful traditions of the people served as an inspiration. They called their style Synthetism, a term derived from the French verb synthétiser, to synthesize or combine.

The Synthetist style attempted to create a new approach that questioned traditional naturalistic representation. Synthetist artists sought to combine the appearance of natural forms with the artist’s emotional response to the subject and aesthetic considerations of line, color, and form.  Although nature served as their starting point, the artists viewed their subject through a veil of distortion in order to express a certain mood.

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Our Lady’s Feast Day

Sunday, December 12 is the Catholic feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the most important holidays in the Mexican calendar.  According to tradition, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to an indigenous peasant named Juan Diego four times in December of 1531.  She was trying to use Juan Diego as an advocate to get a church built in her honor, but the local bishop wouldn’t believe the Indian’s story until Juan Diego provided physical proof.  After the Virgin Mary’s final appearance on December 12, her image was miraculously imprinted on the cloak (called a tilma) that Juan Diego wore, in order to corroborate his story.

That cloak is the relic venerated today in a church built on the hill of Tepeyac, outside Mexico City, where Mary originally appeared to Juan Diego.  Her protection of the diverse populations of Mexico—Indians and creoles, rich and poor—lead to fervent devotion, and Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe remains a potent symbol of Mexican identity and culture even today.

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Now on View

Two new additions to the IMA’s renowned Pont-Aven School Collection are now on view in the Jane H. Fortune Gallery. The Corner Cabinet with Breton Scenes by Emile Bernard is a rare example of carved and painted wood furniture from the group of international artists that worked in the village of Pont Aven in Brittany in the 1880s and 1890s. The cabinet was purchased from the collection of Samuel Josefowitz, the distinguished collector who is generously giving the museum the other new work of art on view in the gallery, a preparatory drawing for the cabinet that allows us to see Bernard’s design process at work.

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About Rebecca

Job Title: Assistant Curator, European Painting and Sculpture
Interests: travel photography, biographies, foreign languages, distance running, college basketball
Favorite Movies: British costume dramas and Classic Hollywood
Favorite Food: Mexican
Pets: A black cat named Maxine
Something Extra: I’ve run 5 marathons and 10 half marathons.

Rebecca has written 6 articles for us.