Thursday, June 23, 2016

Leaving the Montmartre Cemetery (1876)

Jean Béraud: Leaving the Montmartre Cemetery

Leaving Montmartre Cemetery shows a group of mourners walking along the Boulevard de Clichy. In 1876, when this canvas was shown at the Paris Salon, Béraud was only 27 and had been a painter for just three years. After the Franco-Prussian War he had abandoned plans to become a lawyer, and instead studied portraiture with a leading artist of the Third Republic, Léon Bonnat. Bonnat’s teaching studio was in the famous Villa des Arts complex in the Impasse Hélène (now rue Hégésippe-Moreau), one of the cluster of tiny streets backing onto Montmartre Cemetery. Thus, Béraud knew the area that he painted in Leaving Montmartre Cemetery well: his daily routine as an art student took him from Place Pigalle up the Boulevard de Clichy and alongside the cemetery.

At first glance, the figures in Leaving Montmartre Cemetery appear elegant in their black morning garb; the men in top hats and women in deep lace veils. But closer examination reveals that these are not well-to-do people. The man at front right wears an ill-fitting coat, trousers with absurdly high cuffs, scuffed shoes; he lights a cigarette in the street in an uncouth way. The other tired mourners trudge along matter of factly, under a wet gray sky; it has apparently just stopped raining. Only a few touches lighten the painting: the color in the billboard at right, the brightness of the guard’s uniform, the pink bow in the hair of the fashionably dressed woman at the center – she and her fluffy white dog seem out of place in these surroundings. This strange juxtaposition of figures who meet in the same city space but do not connect suggests Gustave Caillebotte’s painting of a year later, Paris, A Rainy Day (1877).

The vividness with which Béraud depicts each individual figure underlines one way in which his work differed from that of the Impressionists: he never fully adopted their abbreviated brushwork and forms. Béraud always remained interested in the specificity of detail; his figures never became anonymous design elements, but are shown as precisely observed individuals. As in so many of Béraud’s works, some of the figures in Leaving Montmartre Cemetery are probably portraits — most likely the artists, writers, and workers of Montmartre. [Sotheby’s]

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