This highly modern ink drawing, largely unpublished and never presented at a public auction, plunges us into the heart of the brief yet fruitful friendship that linked Emile Bernard for a few years with two major artists of the end of the 19th century: Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh.
1. Emile Bernard
Emile Bernard was born in Lille in 1868. His father, a cloth merchant, had married Heloise Bodin, a young widow, who ran a laundry shop with her mother the year before. In 1883 Bernard entered the Collège Sainte-Barbe in Paris and in 1884, at the age of sixteen, he joined the studio of Cormon (1845 - 1924) where he met Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 - 1901), Louis Anquetin (1861 - 1932) and Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890). Emile Bernard was initially attracted by symbolism.
Dismissed from Cormon's studio following an argument with his master, he left for Brittany at the tender age of 18 with a small sum of money given to him by his parents in April 1886. The untamed nature of this region, the magnificent granite calvaries and the picturesque costumes of the inhabitants were a revelation to Bernard. In Concarneau, he met the painter Schuffenecker (1851 - 1934) who advised him to go to Pont-Aven, a small town which had already been attracting artists from across all horizons for some years.
Having left for Pont-Aven hoping to meet Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903), Emile Bernard arrived at the Gloanec boarding house on August 15th 1886 but Gauguin met him with indifference. Emile Bernard then painted his first canvases in an impressionist style that heralded Pointillism.
On his return to Asnières during the autumn of 1886 he again met up with his friends from the Cormon's studio and became more closely associated with Vincent van Gogh. He abandoned his impressionist technique to develop a "coloured synthesism” with Louis Anquetil, characterised by a mixture of cloisonnism (delimitation of motifs by a black line, like in a stained glass window), the use of flat areas of colour and the absence of perspective. He used this technique, which was to form the stylistic basis of the "Pont-Aven School", during a new stay in Brittany during the summer of 1887.
In the spring 1888, Emile Bernard again left for Brittany and arrived in Pont-Aven in August 1888 after a two-month stay in Saint-Briac. It was then, thanks to the referral of Vincent van Gogh, that the real meeting between Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, twenty years his senior, took place. Under the influence of Emile Bernard, Gauguin developed a new style in Pont-Aven in which he synthesised the influence of medieval art, exoticism and Japanese prints. It was also during this stay in Pont-Aven that Bernard introduced Paul Gauguin to Paul Sérusier (1864 -1927), who in turn and under Gauguin's influence will found the Nabis movement.
This collaboration with Gauguin in Pont-Aven was of short duration, although the two artists continued to exchange important correspondence afterwards. On October 23nd Gauguin visited their common friend Van Gogh in Arles for a stay which ended dramatically (two months later on December 23nd Van Gogh cut off his ear after a serious altercation with Gauguin).
Van Gogh committed suicide shooting himself with a pistol on July 27th 1890, while Emile Bernard had a final quarrel with Gauguin in 1891, who he accused of taking all the credit for the artistic inventions of their work in Pont-Aven. Each of them continued their respective lives and artistic research, Gauguin embarking for Polynesia in 1891 while Bernard left for a Mediterranean journey of about ten years in 1893: Italy, Istanbul, Egypt...
2. Description of the artwork
Gauguin is shown in profile, wearing a cap characteristic of his Pont-Aven period. A first portrait at the top, barely sketched, is repeated and developed in the centre of the sheet. Underneath, the face and wings of an angel, extremely juvenile, appear as an overprint, and are difficult to interpret.
Emile Bernard was a fervent Catholic and from 1889 onwards he developed an important religiously-inspired portfolio. As an example, we can find an angel with spread wings in Christ in the Olive Garden with disciples from 1889 (today in the Indianapolis Museum of Art). Paul Gauguin also portrayed himself as Christ in the Olive Garden in 1889. Bernard's religiosity had an influence on other Gauguin paintings too, such as The Vision after the Sermon, The Green Christ and the Yellow Christ (1889), directly inspired by Bernard's Yellow Christ painted three years earlier.
But the presence of this angel under Gauguin's portrait could also be interpreted as a symbolic and premonitory representation of the relationship between Bernard and Gauguin: underneath a dominant Gauguin – who would claim the entire paternity of the Pont-Aven discoveries - the innovative influence of Emile Bernard (then just twenty years old) as symbolised by the youthful figure of the angel - the angel often being the one bearing the divine message in the Bible -.
Emile Bernard had been associated with Van Gogh from 1885 onwards and we have seen that it was thanks to him that Bernard became close to Gauguin in 1888. Van Gogh asked his two friends Bernard and Gauguin to paint crossed portraits during their stay in Pont-Aven. Bernard reportedly refused, feeling intimidated by Gauguin, and each artist finally sent his own portrait to Van Gogh in October 1888, each one featuring a representation of the other in the background.
One may wonder about the place of our drawing in the preparation of Gauguin's portrait inserted into Bernard's self-portrait. We find the same beret, even if the portrait is in profile, and not fronting us as in the painting.
The inscription on the back of this drawing and its family provenance allow us to identify it with certainty as a portrait of Gauguin executed in Pont-Aven during their founding stay in 1888. This drawing is a rare testimony to the fertile friendship between Gauguin and Bernard in Pont-Aven, but also a reminder of their close connivance with Vincent van Gogh.
Main bibliographical reference :
Jean-Jacques Lutti & Armand Israël – Emile Bernard Sa Vie, Son Œuvre Catalogue Raisonné Paris 2014
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