If you went into a room, on the walls of which were a large number of paintings by the great artists of the past but without identifying labels, how many do you think you would recognise? If there were three painting in the room done by each artist, although not grouped together, how many would you be able connect to each artist. For the art history aficionados, maybe the brushstrokes would act like fingerprints. Maybe the colours used by the individual artists would lead you to solve the quest. If they are figurative paintings maybe an artist has his/her own way of depicting them. The reason for those questions is that my artist today has such recognisable paintings that I am sure after reading this blog and looking at his paintings you will be able to identify his work when you see it. Let me introduce you to the nineteenth century Swiss painter Ernest Biéler. He was a multi-talented artist, draughtsman, and printmaker. He worked in oil, tempera, watercolour, gouache, ink, charcoal, pastels, acrylic and pencil. He also created mosaics and stained-glass windows.
Ernest Biéler was born on July 31st, 1863, in Rolle in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland. It is located on the north-western shore of Lake Geneva between Nyon and Lausanne. His father, Samuel Biéler, was a veterinarian and his mother Natalie de Butzow, of Finnish-Polish descent, was a teacher of music and art. Ernest’s maternal grandfather was in the diplomatic corps, and was a one-time Finnish ambassador to Switzerland until his sudden death, which brought difficult financial times to the family.
Samuel Biéer and his wife Nathalie had nine children, two of whom died in infancy. With finances tight, Ernest’s father moved his family to Lausanne, where he had been offered a well-paid post as a lecturer in zoology at the University of Lausanne. Although little is known with regards Ernest Biéler’s early childhood, it is understood that in 1880, aged seventeen he graduated from the College of Art in Lausanne and then, went to Paris to study art at the Académie Julian.
Often in our lives we do something that unbeknown to us at the time will affects our future plans. For twenty-one-year-old Ernest Biéler the time was the summer of 1884 during a walking holiday in the high peaks of the Vallais region, in the southwest of Switzerland. To its south lies Italy and the Aosta Valley and Piedmont and to the southwest France the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes of France. During his hike, Ernest visited the remote mountain village of Savièse.
From there, the beautiful landscapes stretched in all directions, and the people that inhabited the village seemed to almost have circumvented civilization. The village, its people and the spectacular landscape had a great effect on Biéler and would feature in many of his works. This village was to become a great part of his life and through his depictions of the village and the people it would cement his place in the art world which was what he had always strived for.
Biéler was fascinated by the Savièse folk and their traditions. Add to this the ideal outdoor conditions with the brilliant light, which was ideal for plein air painting He went back to the Savièse in the autumn of 1886 and completed numerous sketches that he would use later for one of his masterpieces. He organised for the following summer to have a large stretcher delivered to his Paris studio for him to complete his ambitious work. Biéler completed the painting in his Parisian studio using his preliminary sketches. The finished work entitled Devant l’église de Saint-Germain à Savièse (Outside the Church of Saint-Germain in Savièse) was extremely large, measuring 204 x 302cms. The setting for this work was not one particular church in a particular village but rather a commonplace church with its mighty stone pier and its arched doorway. Before us we see a large group of women gathered together in the warm sunlight. They are all turned out in their dark blue Sunday dresses and are following the mass from the outside. Some are diligently studying their prayer books whilst others have been designated as child minders. By its composition and handling, the work was bound to arouse the interest of avant-garde circles: the figures are made monumental by the close framing. Look at the way Biéler has referenced the effect of the intense sunlight. The way the folds of the clothes reflects this penetrating light. The effect of the light can be seen in the way the artist has added the bluish shadows, applied in broad brushstrokes, to the walls. We can see in this work how Biéler was influenced by the French Impressionists. The painting was seen by a counsellor of state from Vaud, Eugène Ruffy, who bought it for the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne. The one stipulation of the sale was that Biéler was allowed to keep the painting for a while so that he could present it at the Salon of 1887 in Paris.
Many painters in the late nineteenth century clung to the beauty of rural life and religious ceremonies in a way of counteracting the swiftly changing world due to industrialisation which witnessed rural people leaving their communities to search for their dreams in the towns and cities. Biéler and many artists such as Jules Breton and Jean-François Millet depicting such ceremonies and village communities was a way of remembering the peaceful times in rural communities.
In 1892, Biéler was struggling financially and had to sell his property to pay off the many debts he had accumulated. He left Paris and settled in Geneva and was fortunate enough to receive a commission to paint the ceiling in the new concert hall, the Victoria Hall. The building came about thanks to the Consul of England, Daniel Fitzgerald Packenham Barton, who was based in Geneva and had two great passions, navigation, and music, and being one of the extremely rich could satisfy both of them. He arranged that the Geneva architect John Camoletti built the Hall, and he dedicated it to his sovereign Queen Victoria. In 1894, the building was completed. The theme of Biéler’s ceiling paintings was Harmonia, queen of Thebes, the mythical figure of harmony.
On September 16th 1984, the concert hall was engulfed in flames that partly destroyed the interior décor. That night the interior of the Hall was devastated and the world-famous organ simply melted and collapsed. It was soon decided to restore the interior of the hall as far as possible in the original style, which was flamboyant and heavily decorated. The City having decided to restore the building, also decided that the ceiling décor which had been painted by Ernest Biéler had to be replaced by a contemporary work by Dominique Appia.
One original ceiling image which caused a controversy at the time was Biéler’s painting, Naked, ringing the bell. However, the commission was hailed a success and Biéler’s reputation grew, bringing financial rewards.
In 1896, Biéler rented a house for a workshop in Savièse, and immersed himself in village life but he had to return to Paris so as to carry on with his studies at the Académie Julian. Along with fellow artists, such as Édouard Eugène Francis Vallet, Raphaël Ritz, and others, Biéler founded the Ecole of Savièse. This name became synonymous with his unique style of work, in which we see an extraordinary level of detail, that became extremely popular with the public. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Ernest Beeler began building a large house of his own in Savièse with his own workshop and various auxiliary facilities. In 1900, aged 37, he exhibited two works that earned him a silver medal in the Paris Salon and was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour.
Around 1906, Biéler became undecided about his painting style. Should he abandon his realistic painting style in favour of modernism, which rejected history and conservative values such as realistic depiction of subjects and which adopted a period of experimentation in the arts from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. When asked whether he was a realist or an idealist, he simply replied:
“…An artist can strive for both. One does not exclude the other. The national feeling has nothing to do with art…”
In 1909, at the age of 46, Ernest Biéler married a Parisian divorcee, Michelle Laronde, who already had a young son and was an art tutor. They decided to live in Paris rather than the village of Savièse. The reason, as he wrote to a friend, was because his new wife was “too urban to live in Savièse.” In fact she did not want to have anything to do with Switzerland which caused a problem for Biéler, as his main source of income was from Switzerland, where he was still receiving numerous commissions, and for that reason he had to stay for long periods in Switzerland without his new wife.
The second decade of the twentieth century proved to be a problematical and difficult period for Biéler. In 1911 his father died. Seven years later his mother died and during that intervening period war raged in Europe. In 1916, Biéler reluctantly decided to leave his wife and the French capital and move to Vevey, a Swiss town, close to Lake Geneva and about thirty miles north-west of his beloved Savièse. In 1917 he buys a house in Montellier-sur-Rivaz. Now living apart from his wife, there followed the inevitable divorce in 1921.
During this decade, it was not just these personal problems of death and divorce that he had to deal with, he also had an artistic setback. He had been working for four years on his exceptionally large (146.3 x 376.4 cms) painting, L’Eau mysterieuse (Mysterious Waters). Although it was acclaimed when it was shown in Paris in 1912 and subsequently bought by the Gottfried Keller Foundation, after it was exhibited in Switzerland, it failed to persuade him to remain in the French capital. Biéler had meant the work to be an art nouveau manifesto with the aim to establish in Paris the importance of this graphic style and of the seldom-used medium of egg tempera. The work is painted on sheets of paper mounted on canvas and set within a large wooden frame which had been fashioned to Biéler’s instructions. Its long, narrow format recalls the works seen on cassoni, or marriage chests which are a rich and showy Italian type of chest. These long and narrow paintings had been revived by the English Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones. The smooth-flowing depiction is of thirteen princesses fanning out in the foreground which is offset by a number of the trees in the background. The basin into which the women stare, occupies nearly half of the painting. The setting is autumn with fallen leaves on the ground and the surface of the pond. The women are kneeling, gazing into the pond, fascinated by their own reflections and worry at what they see – their unstoppable ageing. However, this depiction is all about Ovid’s myth of Narcissus, enchantment and the feminisation of heroes which was popular at we entered the twentieth century.
In 1917 Ernest set up shop in a vast studio in Montellier near Rivaz and there he began producing the great decorative works that will ensure him lasting fame. He created stained-glass windows for churches (Saint Francis, Lausanne; Saint Martin, Vevey; Saint Germain, Savièse), mounted-canvas ceilings (Victoria Hall, Geneva; Theatre of Bern) and frescoes (Jenisch Museum, Vevey; the main hall of the Greater Council, Sion).
From 1923, Beeler spent the last 25 years of his life in Savièse. In 1928, when he was sixty-five years of age, he married for the second time. His second wife was Madeleine de Kerenville, who was 20 years his junior.
Ernest Biéler died in Lausanne on June 25th, 1948 and is buried in St. Martin’s Cemetery in Vevey.