The most striking feature of the earliest painting by Emile Bernard (1868–1941) in the Van Gogh Museum’s collection is a composition consisting almost entirely of the depiction of water. Our only points of reference are a rowing boat and, directly behind it, the silhouette of a fisherman wearing a top hat, just within the picture frame. Even the horizon disappears from view. To the right of the waterlogged boat, we are afforded a partial glimpse of the quay on which the fisherman is sitting.
The young Bernard must have observed such a scene on the Seine near Asnières, just northwest of Paris. Asnières had been his home since 1884 and he spent a lot of time on the riverbank there. The river figures in many of the paintings Bernard produced during the initial stages of his career, as well as in the surviving early drawings and sketches. The drawings frequently feature a fisherman characterized by a somewhat pitiful and run-down appearance . The portrayal of the fisherman’s drooping shoulders and solitary presence in the painting expresses the same mood as in the sketches. While the top hat may seem chic from a contemporary viewpoint, nothing could be further from the truth. During the nineteenth century, even paupers wore hats and were depicted that way.
In his school days, Bernard had extensively copied magazine illustrations created by Honoré Daumier (1808–1879) and Gustave Doré (1832–1883), a practice that nurtured his interest in depicting types from the lower strata of society. Accordingly, he may have adopted the topos of the fisherman as a transient from Daumier. For instance, Daumier’s The Desperate Fisherman, or There is no Accounting for Taste presents the fisherman as a pauper who, in the face of adversity, nevertheless resolutely continues fishing. Moreover, from a young age, Bernard developed a deep appreciation for the naturalist literature of notable authors such as Victor Hugo (1802–1885) and Emile Zola (1840–1902), among others. Their books, like the work of Doré and Daumier, may have inspired Bernard to draw socially engaged subjects. In his album L’enfance d’un peintre, Bernard, later in life, assembled a large number of sketches from the period 1882–89, including many depictions of impoverished and lonely individuals wandering aimlessly in the streets. Bernard frequently drew them as black silhouettes ( and ), reminiscent of the figure depicted in his painting, a practice that could have been influenced by the popular shadow plays performed in the Chat Noir cabaret. These sketches, in which Bernard combined his observations from Asnières with a certain naturalist engagement, likely formed the basis for the subject of this painting.
A new artistic milieu
However, Bernard’s social stance is unrelated to the painting’s radical composition, its impressionist, loose facture and modern use of colour. The influence behind these elements can be attributed to the avant-garde milieu that Bernard became immersed in from October 1884. At the age of sixteen, he gained admission to the atelier of Fernand Cormon (1845–1924), where aspiring painters practised drawing in the academic manner from models and casts of ancient sculptures. However, during that time, an avant-garde ‘wind of revolution’ was blowing through the atelier, as Bernard himself later described it. He encountered ‘revolutionaries’ such as Louis Anquetin (1861–1932), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) and Charles Tampier (1855–1908), all of whom were keen to initiate a new chapter in the development of modern painting. Their objective was to master the methods of impressionism in order subsequently to renew it. Outside the atelier, these artists introduced Bernard to the nightlife of Montmartre, soirées where art was discussed and venues that exhibited impressionist art, such as the gallery of Paul Durand-Ruel (1831–1922).
Anquetin in particular played an important role in exposing Bernard to the world of avant-garde art around 1885. In later articles, Bernard wrote that his friend had then been an ardent admirer of Claude Monet (1840–1926), even visiting the older master in his hometown of Giverny and attempting to emulate his style in his own paintings. Among them is The Kiosk: Boulevard de Clichy, Winter , which Anquetin gave to Bernard. It depicts a view from the floor above a café on the boulevard de Clichy and showcases an impressionist painting style, along with a striking composition with a pronounced bird’s-eye view. The perspective is reminiscent of works by Gustave Caillebotte (1848–1894) and the Japanese ukiyo-e prints that were hugely popular at the time.
Anquetin’s fervour for impressionism had a profound influence on Bernard, evident in the paintings that the aspiring avant-garde artist produced in 1885 and early 1886. One example is his Little Evening Effect on the Seine, Asnières , characterized by an impressionist painting style and contrasting complementary colours. Another work, Street Scene , shares a similar composition and brushwork with The Kiosk: Boulevard de Clichy, Winter , the painting Anquetin had given Bernard. Fisherman and Boat also belongs to this series of early experiments. As with Street Scene, Bernard adopted a radical approach to composition, employing the same bird’s-eye perspective but replacing the street with the river and the street side with a boat. The impact of Japanese printmaking is obvious, although Bernard, in his later autobiographical writings, only associated this inspiration with his later cloissonist paintings. However, it is likely that his avant-garde friends introduced him to Japanese prints during this early phase as well. Furthermore, Fisherman and Boat evokes the paintings of Georges Seurat (1859–1891) and Charles Angrand (1854–1926) ( and ), who were also actively working along the banks of the Seine near Asnières at the time. Following Fisherman and Boat, Bernard’s interest in experimenting with the bird’s-eye view persisted, as demonstrated in Boy Sitting in the Grass, which he painted soon thereafter.
Use of colour and painting technique
In Fisherman and Boat, Bernard predominantly used various shades of blue and green to depict the water. He applied the scene onto a thin, irregular ground on paper, which was pasted onto a lined canvas at an unknown date. When painting the lighter shades, Bernard employed long, wavy brushstrokes alternated with shorter touches. This technique may have been influenced by Monet, who often depicted his surfaces of water in a similar manner. For example, in Monet’s painting Cabin of the Customs Watch (, he introduced movement to the water by applying light colours in undulating brushstrokes on a dark ground. In May 1885, Bernard, along with Anquetin, Lautrec and Tampier, would have had the opportunity to see that work at the Exposition Internationale de Peinture organized by Georges Petit (1856–1920). The use of complementary colours, specifically blue and orange, in Bernard’s paintings must also have been inspired by the work of the impressionists or Anquetin’s paintings based on them. According to Bernard’s friend Tampier, he excelled in harnessing the contrast between blue and orange, proclaiming him ‘the first known master’ (‘le premier maitre connu’) of these colours.
As in other of his early paintings, in Fisherman and Boat Bernard synthesized an impressionist painting style and radical composition with a raw mood reminiscent of Daumier. This combination was mainly limited to the early period of his career and reveals that as a young artist he was actively seeking a unique synergy of different strategies to distinguish himself as an avant-garde artist.
Joost van der Hoeven