The artist I am looking at today is the French painter Léon-Augustin Lhermitte. I suppose his work could be categorised by three artistic terms: Naturalism, Realism and Ruralism, as he will probably be remembered for his paintings depicting peasant farmers and their families at work in the fields. However, as you will find out, there were more strings to his bow.
Léon-Augustin Lhermitte was the only son of a local schoolmaster. He was born on July 31, 1844 in Mont-Saint-Père, a commune in the Aisne department in Hauts-de-France in north-eastern France, which lies about eighty kilometres north east of the French capital. The village was close to Chateau Thierry, a farming region close to the Champagne region around Rheims. This rural setting was to provide a wealth of ideas, inspiration, and realist subject matter throughout the artist’s life. As a young boy he enjoyed drawing and liked to copy art works he saw in popular illustrated magazines. He liked to look at books which had illustrations by earlier French painters, such as the Realists. Lhermitte’s father encouraged his son’s artistic hobby by encouraging him to sketch. Léon’s talent quickly became apparent to others. His father, proud of his son’s talent, presented his drawings to Count Alexandre Colonna-Walewski, who, at the time, was minister at the École des Beaux-Arts. Walewski was so impressed by the young man’s artistic ability that he offered him a scholarship of 600 francs and arranged for him to enrol in the École Impériale de Dessin in the studio of Horace Lecoq de Boisboudran. It was here Lhermitte was able to learn about his tutor’s unusual drawing method, which emphasised memorization.
Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran was born in Paris. In 1819 he was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts and exhibited at the Salon in 1831 and 1840. Later he became a professor at the academy. He taught drawing at l’École spéciale de dessin et de mathématiques, which was better known simply as the Petite École and now known as the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs. He wrote many books regarding drawing techniques including The Training of the Memory in Art and the Education of the Artist, and The Education of The Scenic Memory and The Training of the Artist. He influenced many great artists such as Rodin, Henri Fantin-Latour and Whistler to mention but a few. Lecoq Boisbaudran developed in his pupils a method of training memory. His students were required to copy progressively complex shapes (starting with straight lines and rectangles) and objects before drawing them from memory. The outcomes were then subjected to rigorous comparison with the model and mistakes corrected, over and over again, if necessary. Eventually, the students graduated to making careful analyses of masterpieces in the Louvre and then drawing them from memory when back in the studio. Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudrand theories had a profound effect on Lhermitte. From what Lhermitte learnt from his tutor, he was able to view a scene, notably a landscape scene, and then more fully execute the painting back in his studio. Whilst working at Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran’s studio Lhermitte became friends with fellow artists, Jean Charles Cazin, Alphonse Legros and Fantin-Latour.
After attending the École Impériale, Lhermitte moved to Paris and shared an apartment with some of his friends. With the financial help Lhermitte had received from Count Walewski he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts and attended the 1863 Salon des Refusés. Although he was receiving tuition in painting at the École des Beaux-Arts his debut at the Salon was not one of his coloured paintings but a charcoal drawing, Les Bords de la Marne près Alfort (The Banks of the Marne near Alfort), which harked back to his days of draughtsmanship at the École de Dessin. In 1864 his painting, Violets in a Glass, Shells, Screen was shown at the Salon.
In 1869 Lhermitte visited London for the first time and whilst there he met Alphonse Legros, a former pupil at the École Impériale de Dessin and he, like Lhermitte, had studied under Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran. Lhermitte returned for a second visit in 1871 and it was then that Legros recommended him as an illustrator for Art in the Collections of England Drawn by E. Lie. More importantly, Legros introduced him to the art dealer Durand-Ruel, who following their meeting, agreed to sell several of his drawings. Later, in 1873 Durand-Ruel arranged for some of Lhermitte’s monochrome pictures to be shown at the Dudley Gallery for the first of the annual Black and White exhibitions and following that, Lhermitte became a regular participant.
In 1874 he received his first medal, third-class, at that year’s for three of his works, Le Benedicite (The Benedictine), Le Bateau (The Boat), Une Rue de Saint-Cyr (A Road in Saint-Cyr). It was in the summer of 1874 that Lhermitte decided to spend time in Brittany and soon he became fascinated with Breton culture, their celebrations, and the way the people, especially women, dressed in their Breton clothes. He enjoyed his time in the region, so much so, he returned there on numerous occasions during the next five years. It was a productive time for Lhermitte and he produced numerous depictions of Breton life.
As well as producing colourful scenes of peasants in the fields he never lost his ability to draw with charcoal and one of his best loved is entitled An Elderly Peasant Woman which he completed around 1878 and now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Lhermitte’s technique is quoted as: charcoal with black chalk, with stumping, scraping erasing and wetting, on wove paper. It is a dignified portrait of a humble person. His sitter has experienced a hard and rugged life as can be seen by her weather-beaten face and her crinkled but she has endured all the hardship. By his depiction of the woman, Lhermitte asks us not to feel sorry for her but admire her fortitude.
In a letter, dated February 4th 1883, to his friend the Dutch painter and draughtsman, Anthon van Rappard, , Vincent van Gogh commented on the talent of Lhermitte. He wrote:
“…Something else — the boss of Black and White may be someone neither you nor I know. In reviews of exhibitions I see mention made of the work of Lhermitte, a Frenchman who does scenes from the life of fishermen in Brittany. It’s said of him that ‘he is the Millet and Jules Breton in Black and White’, and his name crops up again and again. I’d like to be able to see something by him, and have recently written about him to my brother, who has given me very good information several times in the past…”
In 1876, inspired by the wine making traditions of Champagne, Lhermitte completed La Vendange à Mont-Saint-Père which was exhibited at that year’s Paris Salon. It was a large, highly finished works showing amazing detail and observation. Throughout the 1870’s Lhermitte’s reputation continued to blossom as a painter in the realist tradition of Courbet. Such was his reputation that Edgar Degas wrote in his diary that he intended to ask Lhermitte to exhibit at the 4th Impressionist Exhibition in 1879 but it never happened.
Other prizes and honours came to Lhermitte throughout his long career, including the Grand Prix at the Exposition Universelle, 1889, the Diplome d’honneur, Dresden, 1890, and the Legion of Honour. He was also a founding member of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
The subject matter of Lhermitte’s paintings rarely strayed from depictions of the peasants and rural life which he remembered from his youth. Without doubt, the most overwhelming influence upon his work was certainly the French Realist painter, Jean François Millet who, like Lhermitte, was equally skilled with pastel as with oil.
During the 1880’s Lhermitte embarked on a series of monumental works of rural life, influenced by two of his contemporaries, Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton. In this series of paintings he created beautiful light-filled works which mirrored Millet’s theme and reinforcing the self-esteem of peasant life and the splendour of the French rural landscape in the face of the invasion of modern technology. Lhermitte added realism and careful detail to his rural depictions and this would serve him well, stretching into the 1920’s.
In the 1914 book, Le Livre d’Or des Peintres Exposants (The Golden Book of Exhibiting Painters), there was a passage extoling the virtues of Lhermitte’s work:
“…All of his rustic scenes are full of observation and naturalness, executed in a manner which is less and less rugged, and a technique that gains in suppleness. The artist has now discovered his own easy and definitive way of expressing himself and appears in full possession of a subject, which he treats with ease and without weakness. He is the painter of the field worker and rustic landscapes, the theatre of his work. In this genre, he shows a true vision of personages and of the things that surround them…”
And again, Van Gogh wrote about Lhermitte:
“…If every month Le Monde Illustré published one of his compositions…it would be a great pleasure for me to be able to follow it. It is certain that for years I have not seen anything as beautiful as this scene by Lhermitte…I am too preoccupied by Lhermitte this evening to be able to talk of other things…”
Lhermitte exhibited his work at the Salon on a regular basis and his paintings became sought-after items. Despite that, Lhermitte was not satisfied with his success and strived for more recognition. He believed he just had to complete a work which would help him attain the level of success he craved for.
As a regular exhibitor at the Salon, Lhermitte’s paintings had become increasingly sought after, though, in his mind, he had not yet attained the level of success that he desired. He wanted to complete a work that would solidify his success and this came in the form of a series of several large-scale paintings portraying the life and people of his native village of Mont-Saint-Pierre. In 1881 he completed The Tavern Interior. This painting was the first piece in Lhermitte’s grand manner series. Before us, we see a long brown table around which gather a few men watching a woman pouring liquor.
The main figure is the man sitting at the right of the long table who is wearing a white shirt and brown pants, holding a spade in his left hand and in his right hand he holds a glass demanding a refill.. This is the peasant hero created by Lhermitte, known as Le Pére Casimir. It is believed that the painting was in fact based on a real figure, an old peasant named Casimir Dehan. Le Pére Casimir is one of the most important themes in Lhermitte’s grand manner series. Lhermitte depicts the old man with the spade in hand wearing torn and soiled clothing, and thus the artist reveals the status of the working class and the reality of their utter poverty. The weather-beaten face and complexion indicate the long hours spent in the fields with their laborious work, and yet the man’s bulky figure and his upright sitting posture with a spade in hand indicates his heroic temperament.
In 1882, his masterpiece La Paye des Moissonneurs (Paying of the Harvesters) was shown at that year’s Salon and it achieved great acclaim from the critics. Thereafter followed numerous commissions. The painting was bought by the French State and housed in the Luxembourg Museum before being transferred to the Hotel de Ville at Chateau-Thierry. It is a classic example of Naturalism in the way Lhermitte accurately depicted the hard-nosed view of life in rural communities.
Lhermitte received a commission in 1886 to paint a large group portrait featuring Claude Bernard, a French physician and physiologist, which would then be hung at the Sorbonne. The painting is entitled La Leçon de Claude Bernard and depicts him in his Laboratory at the Colle de France. He completed the painting in 1889 and was exhibited at that year’s Salon.
In 1888 he was approached by Andre Theuriet, the French poet and novelist, who asked him to provide illustrations for his new book, La Vie Rustique. This was a major commission and Lhermitte was able to use the many drawings of peasant life he had already completed. In the introduction the author wrote:
“…We propose to trace the grand acts of the rustic drama: the soaring, the labour, the hay-making, the harvest, and the vintage; we wanted to describe the solitude of the farm, the business of the village life, the pleasures of Sunday, and the preoccupations of the weekdays …”
Andre Theuriat’s words sum up the art of Léon Lhermitte and his position in French art of the late 19th century.
Lhermitte was a founding member of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1890. In 1894 he was made an officer of the Legion d’honneur.
Lhermitte was elected to fill Jacques Henner’s chair in painting at the Institut in 1905. He kept exhibiting his paintings in the first decades of the 20th century, but many critics looked upon him and his works as a relic of a bygone era. However, his style undoubtedly had an influence on Socialist Realism.in later years. In the last twenty years of his life he worked much more in pastel, with his skill as a draughtsman ever in evidence. He went on to produce some sensitive portraits and peasant scenes which were reminiscent of his earlier and more powerful depictions, ones that van Gogh had cited as “an ideal”.
Léon Augustin Lhermitte died in Paris, on July 28th 1925, three days before his eighty-first birthday.