13 January 2011

Luicen Levy-Dhurmer: Painter Of Souls

"As a portrait painter he has the gift of grasping the character of the person before him.  He is the painter of the mind as well as the flesh.  In this respect he reminds me of a passage in the Journal des Goncourt where Edmond de Goncourt tells of the impressions of M. de Montesquieu, after a séance with Whistler.  M. Levy-Dhurmer seems also to "pump out some of your individuality - to take the life out of you;  he sees through your body into your soul."  - Frances Keyzer, excerpt from The Studio, March 1906 Volume 37 Issue 156. 

Ever since I first saw this black and white reproduction La Paysanne Breton I have been searching for more about her.  Her quiet self-possession, her solemn, direct gaze fixed on the artist/viewer, are a testament to her specific individuality.  She stands by a weathered stone wall, a reminder of the endurance the Breton land requires of its inhabitants.
 Lucien Levy-Dhurmer seemed to function as a medium, translating the souls of his subjects to canvas.  The Symbolist mantra 'close your eyes and look within' often led to hermetic art, but Levy-Dhurmer's work harks back to an earlier version of the dictum by Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840) :  “Close your physical eyes, so that you can see the painting with the eyes of the spirit.  Then bring into the light of day what you can see with your Night. "        

After viewing Portrait Of Georges Rodenbach (c. 1895) , the poet Robert de Montesquiou dubbed its subject  "the minister of swans" (le pasteur des cynges). The swans of Bruges featured prominently in Rodenbach's novel Bruges-la-Morte, an immediate Symbolist classic on its publication on 1892.  Although he had lived in Paris since 1888, Rodenbach  (1855-1898) didn't discover the art of Levy-Dhurmer until seven years later.  The two became fast friends and the portrait soon followed.  This remarkable image performs the sleight of hand of dissolving the boundaries between the author  and his emblematic subject although, ironically,  he had never been to the city. Using  the technique of  sfumato (from Italian - to evaporate like smoke), Levy-Dhurmer suggests a symbolic fusion of author and subject.

Ah, the mischievous gaze of Mlle. Carlier!  Pastel
creates a diaphanous setting for her formidable charm; she seems to throw powdery dust as us, even as she lounges in its haze of enchantment.  It would interesting to know what  book she is reading!

The woman of/in the pond in this  tranquil portrait is Emmy Fournier (1856-1944), the woman Lucien Levy-Dhurmer married in 1914, when he was forty-nine.  Fournier had been the editor of a feisty feminist journal La Fronde until it ceased publication in 1905.  In her calm self-possession she could be the older sister, or perhaps the grown self, of the Breton girl.  She gazes into an inertior distance, absorbed by her thoughts, her head turned as gracefully as a swan.   A preliminary sketch of this work was dedicated to Perla, Levy-Dhurmer's affectionate nickname for his fiancee.  Fournier kept the sketch in her room until she died in 1944, at the age of 88. 
 He made another pastel of Mme. Levy-Dhurmer in 1917;  it shows her in profile as she sits reading by lamplight, head propped in her hand.  The title?   La Fronde.
1. La Paysanne Bretonne, undated, private collection, France, Reunion Musees Nationales.
2. Notre Dame de Penmarc'h, 1896, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Quimper.
3. Portrait Of Georges Rodenbach, c.1896, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
4. Portrait of Mlle. Carlier, 1910, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
5. Portrait of Emmy Fournier - untitiled, 1910s, private collection, France.
6. Self-portrait of Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, undated 20th century, Musee du Petit Palais, Paris.


femminismo said...

Oh, my! All of this lovely art - here and below! Wow! The mad man in green, the lovely back of the nude woman with the butterfly and pitcher - all so wonderful. Thank you a million times over!

Jane said...

Jeanne, I am so glad you like these. Unfortunately for us in the U.S., there's little of Levy-Dhurmer's work to see. The stunning exception is his 'Wisteria Dining Room' at the Metropolitan in NYC - a total work of art, design, and decor recreated from the Rateau residence in Paris, c.1910-1914. I've written about his work before and there's more on the way.

Jane said...

Andy, as early as 1896, Levy-Dhurmer was viewed as one of a group of artists gathered under the rubric 'painters of the soul.' Not a group in the usual sense, one thing they shared in common was the use of pastels in many of their works. Others were William Degouve de Nuncques, Odilon Redon, Alphonse Osbert, and Fernand Khnopff. Their interests in religion,spirituality, and philosophy were anything but dogmatic so they can difficult to pin down unlike, say, Maurice Denis, a devout Catholic. The works are mostly in European collections.

Andy McEwan said...

Jane, I have long been fascinated by the works of the artists usually known as "The Symbolists." I'm fairly familiar with the works of Redon and Khnopff and have seen some of the important pictures by the latter in the Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels. I'm not so familiar with de Nuncques and Osbert, so I'll have to find out more on them.
A propos of Rodenbach, Khnopff did a frontispiece for an 1892 edition of Bruges-la-Morte published by Marpon et Flammarion, Paris.
I don't suppose we'll ever know what Mlle. Carlier was reading but wouldn't it be nice to think that it was perhaps Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal or Lautreamont's Les Chants de Maldoror?

Jane said...

Mlle. Carlier's expression has a quality the French call mechante, roughly translated as naughty, so she may have read Baudelaire, and Huysmans and Lautremont. The largest collection of Degouve de Nuncques that I know of is at the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterloo. Mme. Kroller-Muller was a friend and supporter of his work, which is how this French-speaking Belgian's work ended up in the Netherlands. Am working on him & other pastellists. In a piece from August 5, 2008, I wrote something about Rodenbach. Am reading "The Reign Of Silenec" now.