Friday, October 10, 2014

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer

Regular readers of the Pastel Journal may have noticed the last page of the October 2014 issue featured Woman with a Medallion by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer  in the Great Pastels series. This piece was a considerably abbreviated version of the original article I wrote for the Journal. Here is the complete article.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer was born Lucien Lévy in Algiers in 1865, to Solomon Levy and Pauline Amelia Goldhurmer.  He returned as a boy with his family to France and in October 1879, at the age of 14,  he began studying at the École communale supérieure de Dessin et Sculpture, and was accepted at the Paris Salon of 1882, well before he had finished schooling, showing a small ceramic plaque featuring the Birth of Venus in the style of Alexandre Cabanel.  From 1886 to 1895, in need of money, he began as a ceramic decorator and climbed to artistic director of the studio of Clément Massier at Golfe Juan, near Cannes on the Côte d’Azur. He became known for his experimentations with metallic luster glazes based on Middle Eastern and Hispano-Moresque pottery, and around 1892 on becoming director he co-signed his first pieces of ceramics together with Clément Massier. Meantime he continued to paint in oil and pastel, exhibiting in Paris with the Peintres de l'âme in 1894 in a show organized by the journal L'Art et la Vie. In 1895, nearing his thirtieth birthday, Lévy travelled to Venice and Florence, where the work of da Vinci and the Renaissance Masters had a profound influence on him. The trip markedly re-focused him on his earlier artistic ambitions. He returned to Paris and his art.
In Paris he settled in a studio down the road from Gustave Moreau’s in the ninth arrondissement. The Belgian poet Georges Rodenbach, through a mutual friend, soon invited the young artist to lunch; he wanted Lévy-Dhurmer to draw his portrait. The portrait, now in the Musee d'Orsay, is a testimony to the rapid friendship coloured with mutual respect which grew up between the two men. In it the poet is shown full face  against a background suggestive of  the town of Bruges in reference to the book which made Georges Rodenbach famous: Bruges-La-Morte.



Thanks to Rodenbach,  Lévy had his first solo exhibition in 1896 at the Galerie Georges Petit under the name Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer (he'd added the last two syllables of his mother's maiden name (Goldhurmer), in order to stand out from other Lévys.) He showed  a series of 24 works including 16 pastels, 2 chalks and 5 oils paintings, some of which are today among his better-known works - Bourrasque, Le Silence, Portrait de Georges Rodenbach, Eve, Mystère.  This location brought him immediate celebrity, as the gallery was known for showing only recognised artists and those with an international reputation. One critic proclaimed him “a youth, a debutant and also a master,” asking rhetorically if the artist was “Symbolist, Mystic, or Romantic.” Another critic likened him to "da Vinci, Botticelli and Memling, the ancients, the moderns…"  He also attracted the attention of artists like Émile Bernard, and Gustave Moreau. Georges Rodenbach introduced him to Pierre Loti, whose portrait he painted, with the Bosporous as the background.  "In the twilight Stamboul of Loti's portrait, I have lit little lamps today, which are reflected in the Bosporus, and which are the small trembling souls of Aziyade and Achmet," he wrote.  Loti thanked him most particularly in a letter:
"I often reproach myself that I have not thanked you enough for painting the only image of me  that will survive.”


His paintings and his style of hazy academicism  was appreciated in equal measure by the public and by other artists. Poet, critic  and resistance leader  Jean Cassou has pointed out: '[Lévy-Dhurmer's] pastels reveal an artist who can reconcile a technique of academic precision with an Impressionist vision of the world, and can thus treat his Symbolist subjects loaded with mystery.'
After 1901 Lévy-Dhurmer moved away from expressly Symbolist content, except in some representations of women illustrating the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy, and in some landscapes, although he was already incorporating more landscapes into his work because of his travels in Europe and North Africa. Travelling in North Africa and then Turkey he made greater use of pastels, easier to carry and use when traveling, and they remained a favored medium throughout his subsequent career.

He participated in some group exhibitions, was a regular at the Salon d'Automne, and had 8 further solo shows.  After 1900 he experimented with a technique of using  diffuse restricted colours, often with a bluish tint, which he continued with up to his death, long after Symbolism had been forgotten.

His paintings and his style of hazy academicism  was appreciated in equal measure by the public and by other artists. Poet, critic  and resistance leader  Jean Cassou has pointed out: '[Lévy-Dhurmer's] pastels reveal an artist who can reconcile a technique of academic precision with an Impressionist vision of the world, and can thus treat his Symbolist subjects loaded with mystery.'
After 1901 Lévy-Dhurmer moved away from expressly Symbolist content, except in some representations of women illustrating the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy, and in some landscapes, although he was already incorporating more landscapes into his work because of his travels in Europe and North Africa. Travelling in North Africa and then Turkey he made greater use of pastels, easier to carry and use when traveling, and they remained a favored medium throughout his subsequent career.
He participated in some group  exhibitions, was a regular at the Salon d'Automne, and had 8 further solo shows.  After 1900 he experimented with a technique of using  diffuse restricted colours, often with a bluish tint, which he continued with up to his death, long after Symbolism had been forgotten.

Around 1910, he began to explore the process of interior decorating, leading to a commission from Auguste Rateau (1863–1930), for his apartment at 10 bis Avenue Élysée-Reclus, near the Eiffel Tower.  Rateau  was an engineer who manufactured internal combustion engines and a member of the Académie des Sciences as well as an art connoisseur with a particular interest in the Art Nouveau movement. Lévy-Dhurmer, like many of his contemporaries (such as Josef Hoffmann in Austria, Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland, and Frank Lloyd Wright in America,) worked as an ensemblier, conceiving interiors as "total works of art" by designing not only the architectural setting but also everything that went into them.
The Wisteria dining room room and all its contents were thus  conceived as a unified whole and were created in 1910-1914. Lévy-Dhurmer incorporated the wisteria motif throughout the room: the canvases, painted in the pointillist style, depict herons and peacocks standing in wisteria-laden landscapes; the book-matched walnut-veneered wall panels are inlaid with purplish amaranth wood representing clusters of wisteria blossoms; tresses of wisteria flowers and leaves are carved on the furniture and even stamped on the leather upholstery. The motif is detailed on the door handles, drawer pulls, and the gilded fire screen. The standard lamps represent the twisting vines of the wisteria liana.  Lévy-Dhurmer was also responsible for a number of other rooms in the apartment including two salons, a library, and a study decorated with a frieze of stylized turbines and mechanical parts. (The Wisteria dining room was purchased in its entirety in 1966 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is on view there in Gallery 813.)

In an article “Modern French Pastelists: L. Lévy-Dhurmer”  published in The Studio in 1906, the  critic Frances Keyzer, wrote: “A determination to master the mysteries of his art, an astonishing power of draughtsmanship. taste of a rare order, a flexible and delicate fancy, a genuine love of all that is exquisite and subtle, without any trace of affectation, a fine sense of order and harmony of line and colour — these are the qualities by which the work of this versatile genius is distinguished.”
 She continues: “His paintings and pastels are generally one-figure studies; but the significance of each picture is conveyed as much by the background and surroundings as by the figure itself. The surroundings play a special and important part in this artist's work, for they are almost invariably imaginative, or efforts of memory. In other and less able hands such a proceeding might affect the earnestness of the work, but that clearness of vision which is one of M. Levy- Dhurmer's salient characteristics enables him to reconstitute and reproduce a landscape that has impressed him. In fact, the painter not only sees again the rocks and the trees, the hills and the valleys he has admired, but the same sensations that moved him at the time are revived in him with scarcely any diminution of strength.”

Lévy-Dhurmer used pastels a great deal, the medium readily lending itself to the magic of symbolism; several of his contemporaries, particularly Fantin-Latour and Fernand Khnopff, were equally attracted by his pastel technique. He was influenced by the ideas both of Khnopff and the Pre-Raphaelites, by Puvis de Chavannes and by Florentine and German painters  of the  XV-XVI  century.  This is particularly evident in the  Femme à la médaille, 1896, Paris, Musée d'Orsay ; and in  l'Automne, 1898, Saint-Étienne).


A contemporary critic, George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History Emeritus, Brown University, makes this observation: “Take as a point of comparison the exquisite hard-edge pastel portraits of Frederick Sandys, a late-Pre-Raphaelitesurvival, and set them next to Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Fair Ladies — single portraits at the opposite ends of Pre-Raphaelitism, the first set in bright clear light, the second in inner worlds of mood and emotion. Lévy-Dhurmer's soft-edge, often dreamy works move farther into a subjective inner world of memory, reverie, and desire.”

A great traveller, to  Italy, Spain, Turkey, Morocco, and Brittany, Lévy-Dhurmer's went through a realistic period where his works expressed simply the warm colours of nature or the curious personality of his models.  This, in the first decade of the century, was when he produced much of his best work, notably Les Aveugles de Tanger, 1901 (Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne), and the Mère Bretonne (Musée de Brest). He then tried to fashion a synthesis between reality and his artistic intuition, but he remained above all a master of esoteric Symbolism: he preferred to evoke mysterious appearances, distant faces with a mysterious pallor, such as Le Silence, 1895, a picture that Levy-Dhurmer kept throughout his life, and one of his most fascinating works. There is no clue to identity, or location; it is timeless, devoid of context,  making it thereby both symbolic and universal. It owes something of its intensity to the use of pastel , the hatching strokes makes the whole image shimmer.

In 1899 the critic Achille Ségard likened the face to "that of a statue". He was perceptive. For although Lévy-Dhurmer was influenced by the historical iconography of silence, as expressed in the depiction of Horus, the Egyptian deity, he took his inspiration more directly from the medal sculpted by Auguste Préault for Jacob Robles' tomb in the Père-Lachaise cemetery.
Exhibited in Paris in 1896, and again at the end of 1899 and the beginning of 1900, Le Silence fascinated his contemporaries, and had a major impact on the Symbolist generation from Fernand Khnopff to Odilon Redon. It was acquired by the collector Zagorowsky in 1953, just before the artist’s death, and passed to the Bobritschew collection in 1976; the French state acquired in it lieu of death duties in 2006, and it now resides in the Musée d’Orsay.

His exquisite portraits include those of Rodenbach (1896), Pierre Loti (1896), and Natalie Clifford Barney, (1906)notorious salon hostess and daughter of American painter Alice Pike Barney.  (In 1882 Barney and her family spent the summer at New York's Long Beach Hotel, where Oscar Wilde happened to be speaking on his American lecture tour. Wilde spent the day with Alice and her daughter Natalie on the beach; their conversation changed the course of Alice's life, inspiring her to pursue art seriously despite her husband's disapproval). 
In 1914, when he was forty-nine, Lévy-Dhurmer  married Emmy Fournier, nine years his senior, who had been an editor of the early feminist newspaper La Fronde until it ceased publication in 1905. By this time he was working primarily on landscapes, both oil and pastel, in a style similar to Whistler and Monet. He died in Le Vésinet, Yvelines,  in 1953.

The painting La femme à la médaille or Mystère, ( Woman with Medal, or Mystery) was until 1972 in the collection of M. et Mme Zagorowsky.  It was accepted as a bequest to the French state and destined  for the Louvre, but it was assigned to the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, where it may be seen today. (Lévy-Dhurmer's work was amassed by art collector Zagorowsky, whose magnificent  bequest,  exhibited in March-April 1973 at the Grand Palais (Paris), was divided between the Parisian Musée d'Orsay and Petit Palais, and the museums of  Beauvais, Brest, Gray, Pontoise, Saint-Étienne and Sète.)
This painting is well named Mystère. It is done in pastel and gold leaf on paper mounted on card, 35 x 54 cm, painted in 1896 – who is the subject? What is the medal? To whom is she showing it – to a lover, a husband – a mirror? The woman is tightly dressed, almost concealed in a coat with a high collar and a scarf wrapped round her hair and lower jaw, with just her face exposed. The colours are muted - it has the simplicity of a Whistler, but we remain forever intrigued. 



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