11 May 2013

Antonin Personnaz: Our Contemporary

Subtle washes of blue and pink are what we notice first, then the jaunty red hull of the little boat that steams along an unnamed  but strangely familiar-looking French river.   In spite of those muted tones a luminosity emanates from this century old image.  Autochrome, the first widely used color photographic process, was  notoriously  difficult to work with, its colors fixed but not stable, in grains of starch that migrated over time.  And yet, amateur photographer were eager to try. Antonin Personnaz   a wealthy Frenchman, was so keenly attuned to aesthetic values that his  photographic experiments achieved  exquisite effects that have survived the depredations of time and exposure. 

Antonin Personnaz (1855-1936) was born in Bayonne, the capital of the Basque region in southwestern France.   He made his fortune as a professional exporter of goods. Through his friendship with Leon Bonnat,  a portrait painter in Paris and also a native of the Pyrennes.  Personnaz met the artists whose works he began to collect.   Their names are a roll-call of Impressionist masters: Mary Cassatt,  Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Toulouse-Lautrec.

Personnaz began taking pictures desultorily aorund 1896, after seeing  photographs by Constant Puyo, one of the first Pictorialists.  But there was something about color photography that clicked with Personnaz's own  imaginative capabilities.  As soon as  autochrome  was introduced by the Lumiere Brothers in 1907, Personnaz began taking pictures in earnest. 

For an ardent collector like Personnaz, the attraction of making his own images to correspond with the paintings he loved was irresistible.   These intimate associations acted as a force field as he trained his eye through the viewfinder.  With recent investigations into the deliberate staging used even by photographers as early as Gustave le Gray (Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before The Age Of Photoshop by Mia Fineman), we know that Personnaz was far from alone in creating his photographic equivalent for Alfred Sisley's wintry masterpiece La neige a Louvecinnes (1878, Musee d'Orsay).  The warm weather image (above) may well have been his version of Sisley's Louveicennes - the Path to the Hieghts of Marly (ca. 1873),  a painting Personnaz owned.

Monet's influence on Personnaz has quite natural, given the enduring friendship that grew up between the two men.  Personnaz often visited the artist in his later years at Giverny.  Nevertheless, Personnaz had a poetic sensibility of his own.  He seems to have been drawn to the individual subject, whether a person, an animal, or an inanimate object.  The woman holding a red parasol may be pure Monet but the young girl hoisting a hay bale comes from an earthier tradition in French art, perhaps by way of Berthe Morisot's Dans les bles a Gennevilliers (1875), another Personnaz acquisition.   The little packet boat plies its industrious way without the cheering crowds or waving flags of an Impressionist   regatta, but then Personnaz didn't own one of those pictures.  

The impassioned amateur photographer became a proselytizer for the new  medium.  The lecture Personnaz gave, inaugurating  the Peligot Medal (named for chemist Eugenie Peilgot) helped to popularize the autochrome in France. Then, at the International Congress of Photographers held at Brussels in  1910, he presented a paper The Aesthetic of the Autochrome Plate in response to criticisms by painters that the colors produced by fixatives and grains of starch were "lacikng in exactness".  Personnaz replied with  a  comparison of the new process to pointillist techniques in painting, even employing a magnifying glass to illustrate his ideas.

In a footnote to the tale of the Personnaz collections, one of the Monets that became part of the Personnaz bequest to the Musee d'Orsay  - Le pont d'Argenteuil  - was in the news when, on October 6, 2007,  one of a party of drunken visitors struck the painting, making a four inch tear in the canvas.  The painting suffered more wear and tear than even his photographs.
 Personnaz served as the General Secretary to the Societe Photographie Francaise from 1911 to 1919, publishing several articles on topics close to his heart in the Bulletin: the technical aspects of autochrome practice and the relationship between painting and photography. A man fully engaged in contemporary art and technology his time and,  in his aesthetic predilections, prophetic.  The more we learn about early photographers and their relationships to painting, the more Antonin Personnaz becomes one of us, not a distant figure at all.
 A year after his death in 1936,  his widow donated the Personnaz photography collection to the SPF.  The Personnaz paintings were were donated at the same time to the Louvre.  As a result of the realignment of  national museums in Paris, they are now in the Museed'Orsay/

1. Red-hulled Boat, 1908, SPF. 
2. A Street, c. 1907-1910, SPF.
3. Woman Carrying a Sheaf of Corn,   SPF.
4. Woman With A Parasol,  no date, SPF.
5. Claude Monet - Le pont d'Argenteuil, 1874, Musee     d'Orsay, Paris.
6. Fishermen, 1909.SPF.
7. Sun Rises Over the Fields in Winter, ca. 1910, SPF. 
8. La meule (Haystack) 1905, SPF.


Tania said...

Amazing "déjà vu" effect !

Jane said...

Tania, Personnaz did not choose between painting and photography like many of his contemporaries. He had both. I want to know more about what motivated him.