The attribution of this painting remained uncertain until 1992. However, any doubts were dispelled when the preliminary study of this work was discovered in the album titled L’enfance d’un peintre , in which Emile Bernard (1868–1941) in his later years assembled numerous drawings from the period 1882–89. Since these drawings are unquestionably by Bernard, this painting can also be definitively attributed to the artist.
Understandably, prior to the discovery of the preliminary study, this work was not immediately recognized as a Bernard. First, the absence of a signature is unusual, as most of Bernard’s works from 1886, the year when Boy Sitting in the Grass was made, are signed. However, it should be noted that he occasionally signed his earlier work at a later date. Second, the combination of the short impressionist brushstrokes for the grass and thick contour lines defining the boy is not in keeping with Bernard’s style. Bold contour lines, which became more prominent in his work from 1887 onwards, were commonly accompanied by evenly painted areas of colour rather than short, dynamic touches. At the same time, Bernard’s early body of work is difficult to characterize in terms of a ‘logical’ stylistic development. This complexity hampers the process of attributing or rejecting a painting based solely on its style. Bernard experimented with a wide range of styles and techniques over a relatively short period of several years.
Pont-Aven and Gauguin
Boy Sitting in the Grass probably originated during the six weeks Bernard spent in Pont-Aven in 1886, from 15 August to 29 September. While there, he became acquainted with Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Charles Laval (1861–1894), Henri Delavallée (1862–1943) and Achille Granchi-Taylor (1857–1921), among other artists. These encounters undoubtedly influenced Bernard’s painting style, which, as mentioned above, had yet to acquire a distinctive identity. Prior to his stay in Pont-Aven, Bernard had travelled through Brittany on foot: his voyage à pied, as he called it. The paintings he made en route demonstrate a great affinity with the work of Claude Monet (1840–1926) . Bernard focused on capturing the landscape through short brushstrokes and contrasting colours. He perceived his Breton surroundings as a ‘permanent impressionist exhibition’ and wrote, ‘on a fine day, it is the spitting image of Monet’.
Boy Sitting in the Grass stands out among Bernard’s earlier Breton paintings in that it is not a composition made en plein air but a creation based on a preliminary study. Bernard transferred his motif to the canvas by first ‘drawing’ the figure in thick purple lines and then filling in the rest of the painting. Both the use of a preliminary study and the manner of painting align with Gauguin’s method. In fact, Gauguin also relied on preliminary studies for the figures in his paintings, applying them to the canvas with bold lines of paint. Bernard was impressed by Gauguin, describing him in 1886 as ‘a very talented fellow, he is 36 years old, and draws and paints very well’.
The similarities between Boy Sitting in the Grass and Gauguin’s work extend beyond the painting technique. The subject matter also bears a resemblance to the older painter’s work. It is highly likely that Bernard saw Gauguin’s Bathing Boys at the Watermill in the Bois d’Amour , which features young bathers and could have served as an example. Moreover, Bernard’s decision to depict the boy from the back may also have been inspired by Gauguin’s work. It is worth noting that Bathing Boys at the Watermill in the Bois d’Amour was completed prior to Bernard’s arrival in Pont-Aven. We know that Bernard visited Gauguin’s studio there, accompanied by Granchi-Taylor. Therefore, he most certainly had the opportunity to see Gauguin’s canvas at that time. It is possible that the depiction of a partially visible painter standing at a field easel in the upper left could be an anecdotal reference to Gauguin himself painting bathers. Bernard added this detail later, once the green paint of the grass had somewhat dried. This detail is not included in the preliminary study.
After transferring the preliminary study onto the grounded canvas using purple paint, Bernard modelled the boy’s body in fairly coarse brushstrokes. He painted the shading on the boy’s back in a greenish-blue hue, effectively conveying the greenish glow of the grass on the skin. He then appears to have applied the skin colour around this passage. In some places it is clear that the teal hue was painted over, while in other places Bernard left parts of the ground layer unpainted around the shaded area. Finally, he painted over sections of the dark purple contour lines; the still wet purple paint then blended here and there with the freshly applied colour. The overall effect makes a somewhat messy impression, demonstrating Bernard’s hesitancy in modelling the boy’s back. However, this all adds to the work’s spontaneous character.
The grass in Boy Sitting in the Grass is rendered in a network of swiftly painted green and light blue brushstrokes applied wet-on-wet on a green ground. This artistic device greatly enhances the vigour of the work. Earlier paintings from Bernard’s voyage à pied, such as Village Street in Saint-Briac , also feature similar short, hatched brushstrokes. However, in Pont-Aven Bernard would soon transition from this wet-on-wet application of short, dynamic touches to a pointillist style of painting, as exemplified in works such as Two Breton Women in a Meadow . By giving the boy deep red hair, Bernard introduced a striking complementary contrast into the painting. The presence of red amid a sea of green makes the colour stand out effectively. Bernard was highly interested in working in complementary colours. Throughout his voyage à pied, for example, he frequently explored the visual effects of the blue-orange colour pair (see , and ).
While Boy Sitting in the Grass was painted using some strategies that may have been inspired by Gauguin, it is also a continuation of the direction in which Bernard worked during his voyage à pied. This can be seen in the bird’s-eye perspective he used. Prior to his journey through Brittany, Bernard had already explored such an approach to perspective in Asnières in the winter of 1885–86, as is evident in Fisherman and Boat; however, he also used this perspective during the trip, as seen in The Public Garden in Mayenne . In Boy Sitting in the Grass, the bird’s-eye perspective creates an effect whereby the horizon disappears from view and the composition is dominated by the grass and a small patch of vegetation at the top of the canvas. This is an interesting compositional approach, yet at the same time it may be perceived as too simple. Perhaps this explains why Bernard chose to incorporate the legs of a painter at the upper left.
Boy Sitting in the Grass is modest in size, like most of the pictures Bernard painted during his voyage à pied. He later described the artistic output of his trip as a series of ‘studies and drawings’. This left Bernard somewhat frustrated because he had envisioned producing a ‘grande machine’, a large and fully realized masterpiece, influenced by his reading of the novel L’Œuvre by Emile Zola (1840–1902). In his letters to his parents, he lamented his inability to rise above the studious nature of his work. At the same time, he was also aware of the pitfalls of chasing after a masterpiece and recognized the importance of making many oil studies as part of his development. While not necessarily a masterpiece, Boy Sitting in the Grass represents a significant step forward in Bernard’s artistic growth and progress.
Joost van der Hoeven