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Emile Bernard - Pioneer of Impressionism

Emile Bernard made friends and foes among the principal members of the Paris avant-garde movement. He was deeply touched by Cézanne's works and fascinated by the weird and determined stranger from the North, Vincent van Gogh.

Leading figures of the 19th-century avant-garde in Paris

Van Gogh's friend Emile Bernard

Emile Bernard, Preface

Emile Bernard, Preface

Emile Bernard was born on 28 April 1868 in Lille into a bourgeois family of comfortable means. His father plied a lucrative trade in the textile business. The family moved to Paris in 1878 to Paris. Bernard felt rejected by his parents, whose affection almost exclusively concentrated upon his somewhat sickly sister, Madeleine.

At the age of 16 Bernard was accepted as a pupil at the studio of Cormon. After his expulsion from Cormon's studio for insubordinate behavior in the early Spring of 1886, Bernard undertook his six-month trip through Normandy and Brittany.

From the age of 18 until his departure for Italy and Egypt seven years later, he made friends and foes among the principal members of the Paris avant-garde movement.

He roamed Parisian night-life with Toulouse Lautrec and Anquetin, was deeply touched by Cézanne's works and fascinated by the weird and determined stranger from the North, Vincent van Gogh, with whom he worked tpgether for a several months.

Later he was to remain in touch with him through an extensive correspondence and exchange of works. About Vincent, Bernard composed the first article, called Van Gogh.

As radical in his preferences as in his aversions, he harshly rejected the work of Signac and the Neo-Impressionists after having worked in dots himself for many months, deciding to curb his art into linear abstraction. He worked briefly alongside Gauguin in Pont-Aven.

It was Bernard, who first realized the importance of the Van Gogh artwork.

Emile Bernard and Van Gogh

Emile Bernard and Vincent van Gogh

In the autumn of 1890 Van Gogh's brother Theo had asked Bernard to assist in preparation for an exhibition, to be set provisionally to in Theo's own apartment. And so it was that on March 1, 1891, barely one month after Theo's death, Bernard wrote the following appeal to Theo's widow that after the recent success of his very devoted friend Paul Gauguin, it seems urgent to him to exhibit Van Gogh's work before its removal to The Netherlands, in order to make us realize in France how curious and extraordinary an artist his well beloved friend Vincent is. The project never realized due a misunderstanding. See Bernard's portrait on the tittle page of d'Aujourd'hui.

His commitment to Van Gogh by no means prevented Bernard from also turning a critical eye to his work. To his mind, Vincent was neither an ordinary man nor, a painter. Vincent brushes away, tosses and turns the paint, tortures it and caresses it depending on the effect and intensity he wants to obtain from it. Bernard saw Van Gogh above all as a painterly temperament, but one whose work has been prevented from reaching full maturation due his premature death, who lacked both the fundamentals and a definitive conclusion: He denies all wisdom, all striving for the absolute, for perfection or harmony. often his design is rough and rarely soft or tender, when he becomes tender, he looses his original force.

> Read more Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Emile Bernard, Arles, 6-11 June 1888

Bernard probably also felt misunderstood when Van Gogh issued his harsh criticism of Bernard's work, and of his treatment of biblical themes in particular. Van Gogh found them artificial and affected. Bernard terminated the correspondence.

The Petit Boulevard

The Petit Boulevard

Vincent van Gogh arrived in Paris in early March of 1886. At that time he was barely 33 years old, had been active as an artist for just over 5 years, and came with the declared intention of studying nude drawing and classical art for at least a year at the Atelier Cormon. There Emile Bernard, Van Gogh's junior by 15 years and a student, puportedly met him. There or in the small artist's material shop owned by Père Tanguy.

From April 1887, Theo van Gogh succeeded in winning the favour of Monet and Pissarro, who was joined by Degas in the summer, and finally, towards the end of the year, by Guillaumin and Gauguin. And Theo, who had demonstrated an interest in the Impressionists long before his brother, by no means regarded these contacts as his own achievement, but believed instead that owed them largely to Vincent, who had understood how to create an entourage of artists and friends, something totally incapable of doing by Theo. In time contacts with avant-garde circles, particularly those surroundings Toulouse Lautrec, Anquitin and Bernard, became stronger.

Other factors which were instrumental in promoting this development were almost certainly the two exhibitions organized by van Gogh. The first, held in the early summer of 1887 at the Tambourin, consisted of Japanese woodcuts which Van Gogh had dug up. The exhibition of prints influenced Anquetin and Bernard. At the end of 1887 Vincent had the opportunity to exhibit his work in the Restaurant du Chalet, he persuaded Bernard, Anquetin and Lautrec to join him. Bernard sold his first picture there, and Anquetin sold a study, and Vincent made a exchange with Gauguin. It really looked quite new and Bernard recalled: by far the most advanced thing in Paris.

The show was visited not only by Pissarro, Gauguin, Guillaumin, but also by Seurat, whom Van Gogh met there for the first time. And a new level of discussion was found. The discussion covered a wider field. An important topic was the measures to be taken to safeguard the material existence of painters. From then on Van Gogh dreamed of founding an artists cooperative of an union of the Impressionists handled by dealers on the Garand Boulevard (Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas) and those from the Petit Boulevard, amongst whom Van Gogh numbered himself, alongside of Signac and Seurat, Guillaumin and Gauguin, of permanent exhibitions in Paris, London and Marseille, of artists houses in Brittany, in the Midi, in the Borinage.

The Unity that strengthens was, of course, a long way from being achieved. There were wide gulfs separating the various factions, and Emile Bernard in particular, in the euphoria of his recently gained recognition and success and with youthful élan, seems to have been active as an intriguer. He picked quarrels with Gauguin and refused to exhibit with Signac.

Dot versus line ... Cloisonism

Dot versus line ... Cloisonism

One has heard talk about the impressionists, one expects a whole lot from them and one sees them for the first time one is bitterly disappointed, and thinks slovenly, ugly, badly painted, badly drawn, bad in color, everything that is miserable. Van Gogh probably formed this initial impression when he visited the 8th, and last, Impressionist Exhibition, which opened on 15 May 1886, that is, only several weeks after his arrival in Paris. Seurat and Signac were allowed to participate for the first time, and their paintings, mocked by critics as pointillist and giving rise to quarrels among the exhibitors even before the exhibition opened, were soon the talk of the town.

The share of light, the share of reflexes of neighbouring objects, and the share of simultaneous contrasts as required by the theory of color., became the conversational topic of the day among artists. Anyone who wanted to be in on the discussion started experimenting with the dot. Thus Van Gogh adopted the procedure, as did Anquetin and Emile Bernard, who later remembered: Almost all of us were forced by theory into pointillism.

Disillusion did not fail to set in, for the technique's limitations were soon discovered. On the one hand, the directionlessness of the dot necessarily transmitted itself to the entire surface of the picture. On the other, the dot tends to corrode all lines or outlines, especially since the dot grid should not be too small, so as to maintain the intensity of color. it was found that if the dot was too small, the colors lost their brilliance when the painting was observed from the distance necessary to create the optical mixture. However Anquetin and Emile Bernard were not satisfied and postulated the line as the antithesis of the dot.

Van Gogh's Japanese woodcuts also played a role in firing the imagination of Anquetin and Bernard. Van Gogh himself, however, kept his back covered. To him such things were probably too close to academic dogma, according to which a proper drawing must begin with a line. He preferred to seek a path that took color as its point of departure.

The first showing of Cloisonism (paintings were showing areas enclosed with thick lines) in 1887 had apparently been enough to convince the Neo-Impressionists of the weaknesses not only of their own painting technique but also of their theoretical justifications, as their reaction seems to arguments of color theory, now even the scientific branch of painting was turning towards the exploration of the line.

Van Gogh appreciated then work of Anquetin, and that of Bernard even more. But their experiments did not impress him to the point of moving him to abandon the idea of division, much less his theory of color. Most of the paintings executed towards the end of his stay in Paris can easily be read as experiments aimed at reconciling the dot and the line.

Emile Bernard considers the duty to think, not to dream

Emile Bernard considers the duty to think, not to dream

1891 was to be a significant year for Emile Bernard. His quarrel with Gauguin, his own sense of personal hurt caused by the wrong which he felt had been inflicted upon him, plunged him into a deep crisis, which had strange ramifications. While imposing the most severe rationality upon himself in his work, at the same time he sought comfort. First with the Rosicrucian's, then the lap of the one true Church. This transformation took place during an extended sojourn at Saint-Briac and surprised even his good friends. They like him very much. Bernard is a real artist. He wore black oversized gloves and kept an old, very old missal pressed against his chest.

In addition, following the suicide of Van Gogh, the death of his brother Theo and the return of his widow to The Netherlands, Bernard was entrusted with the role of administrator of Van Gogh's affairs. He pleaded for an exhibition of his dead friend's work, put his estate in order, together with the brother of the widow of Theo, and prepared the paintings to be removed to The Netherlands. As early as in 1891 Bernard penned his first posthumous texts on Van Gogh and also took the task of editing Van Gogh's letters. In April of 1893 the Mercure de France started publishing extracts from the letters which Van Gogh had written to Bernard.

Because of the commitment to Van Gogh and his work, no doubt prolonged by regular financial support from the brother, the then barely 25-years-old artist was constantly turning his glance back over his own past, and thus, at the same time, also permitted his Flaubert an ulcer to fester. Bernard believed Van Gogh's letters, as he explained to the widow of Theo, of facts without interest about daily life, repetitions, and family affairs that didn't suggest any personal idea to Vincent, and took also took the opportunity to delete nearly all the passages referring to him and Gauguin.

Emile Bernard simplified his own role as historian by clarifying once and for all, as early as in August of 1891, how Van Gogh and his work should be assessed. Gifted with the temperament of a genius, Van Gogh was however, so wrote Bernard, not really a painter in the strict sense, and thus should not be counted among the masters. And Bernard did not falter from this view, derived from rigorous attitude of l'art pour l'art, as his letter writing and notes document. From this we may infer that Emile Bernard also suspended all reflection about his own past. There was nothing that our duty is to think, not to dream.

> Read more Emile Bernard in Musee d'Orsay

Emile Bernard's life in autobiographical order

1886 - 28 April - Emile Bernard was born in Lille.
1870 - Bernard's family takes refuge from Franco-Prussian War at a village near Rouen. Father's business is ruined.
1871 - Sister Madeleine born in Lille.
1878 - Bernard family moves to Paris. Bernard followed drawing lessons at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs, from which he was expelled.
1879 - Bernard's family moves to Norget-sur-Marne because of ill-health.
1880 - Bernard returns to Paris.
1882 - Bernard's drawing activity increases.
1884-1886 - Studies at Cormon's atelier
1887 - Bernard exhibits pointillist works. And forms part of a group Vincent van Gogh, Gauguin, Camille and Pissarro.
1890 - Vincent van Gogh's death. Bernard agrees to accompany Gauguin to Madagascar.
1941 - 16 April, death of Emile Bernard in Paris.


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