In 1887 and 1888, Emile Bernard (1868–1941) painted a substantial number still lifes in which he simplified the objects he depicted. Looking back later, he called these paintings his synthèses géometriques (geometric syntheses). Of these works, nineteen are now known, including Vase of Flowers and Cup. The objective of these still lifes was to seek the true essence of objects by reducing them to pure, elemental shapes and bright, unsaturated colours. The artist, Bernard posited, ‘sees the style rather than the object, that is to say, draws out its character and spirit […] The result was more decorative than pictorial.’ In his view, details were a distracting ‘spectacle’ that hindered the true understanding of an object. He believed that simplifying and synthesizing the elements into a decorative tableau provided deeper insight than a detailed representation. According to Bernard, ‘Every form is like a word in a language, composed of the assemblage of the objects, represented in their distinctiveness.’
Bernard wrote numerous articles delving into the art-theoretical foundations of stylistic experiments, including his still lifes. They are part of a broader written body of work, ranging from his views on art to treatises on literature and religion, among other subjects. However, the vast majority of the discourses on the avant-garde years at the outset of his career were not recorded contemporaneously but rather decades later. By that time, Bernard no longer played a prominent role within modern art and was painting in a more traditional style. In his articles, he nevertheless repeatedly revisited the part he played in the avant-garde movements of the 1880s, possibly with the intention of swaying their historiography in his favour. After years of reflection, Bernard was able to vividly capture the essence of his art during that period. Despite the temporal gap between the creation of works such as Vase of Flowers and Cup and the artist’s retrospective descriptions, their content is no less valuable.
Bernard’s later writings thus provide valuable insights into the theoretical underpinnings of a work like Vase of Flowers and Cup. The simplified forms he chose for the bouquet and vase and the clear outlines of the objects take on meaning within this context. The bright, unsaturated colours as well as the uncomplicated, balanced composition Bernard chose served the purpose indicated above. The art critic Edouard Dujardin dubbed this simplifying approach to painting ‘cloisonnism’ in 1888.
The distinct pentimenti in the blue background of the work indicate that Bernard did not have a predetermined composition in mind when he began working on this still life. Initially, he planned to paint a window at the right, with the bouquet positioned in front of it. However, he eventually decided on a plain blue background and opted for only two objects on a small table. As a result of subsequent overpainting, the surface is noticeably thick and in raking light reveals a rich texture. Bernard was apparently experimenting with his composition while painting, ultimately arriving at a simple and balanced composition.
In some of his abstracted still lifes from 1887–88, Bernard took his stylization even further than in Vase of Flowers and Cup, as exemplified by the painting Stoneware Jar and Apples . In the latter composition, he depicted the objects as flat geometric shapes with bold black outlines. By presenting the table frontally, Bernard eliminated the diagonal that creates a sense of depth. The focus is solely on the essence of the forms, allowing the interplay of lines and areas of colour to take centre stage. Bernard later wrote on the back of that work: ‘Premier essay de Synthétisme et de Simplification 1887’ (First attempt at Syntheticism and Simplification 1887).
Experiments in Brittany
Bernard’s memory failed him here, however, because instead of Stoneware Jar and Apples, it is likely that Bouquet of Lilacs was the first still life in this series. That work is also from 1887, but it must have been painted as early as May, when lilacs are in bloom. Bernard was in Brittany at the time. Stoneware Jar and Apples, however, like most of his synthèses géometriques, were painted at Bernard’s parents’ house in Asnières following his return from Brittany in late September 1887. Contrary to previous assumptions, Vase of Flowers and Cup, along with Bouquet of Lilacs, was actually painted in Brittany, specifically in the coastal town of Saint-Briac, where Bernard resided from early June to early August.
The key clue is the presence of the blue vase depicted in the still life. Interestingly, this vase reappears in two later paintings, both of which were created in Saint-Briac: Still Life and Portrait of Madame Lemasson . The latter work was made in 1891 and portrays the owner of the inn in which he stayed in Saint-Briac, to which Bernard returned annually after 1887. He included the notable inscription ‘Sanct-Briac ’91’ in the upper right corner of the work. What is striking is that the bouquet in the portrait is almost identical to the one in Still Life, from which it may be deduced that the two works were made in close succession and feature the same bouquet. The problem with this hypothesis is that Bernard dated Still Life in 1889 while Portrait of Madame Lemasson is indeed (correctly) dated to 1891. Considering Bernard’s tendency to date his paintings long after their completion and often too early, it may well have been painted in 1891. The still life must have been antedated, especially since it corresponds stylistically and shares a similar palette with Portrait of Madame Lemasson. This then suggests that both works featuring the blue vase were indeed created in Saint-Briac, and hence the same applies to Vase of Flowers and Cup. Additionally, the field bouquet in Vase of Flowers and Cup must have been picked in summer, when Bernard was in Brittany. The later still lifes produced in Asnières in 1887–88 were painted after the wildflower season, explaining the absence of bouquets in them.
The example of Cézanne
Bernard’s examples for Vase of Flowers and Cup and the rest of his synthèses géometriques included Japanese prints and medieval stained-glass windows. However, his main source of inspiration was the work of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), which he later referred to as ‘truly the greatest progress to emerge from modern apperceptions’. Cézanne’s still lifes are characterized by simple forms, clear contours, uncluttered compositions and brushwork applied in parallel strokes. Bernard described Cézanne’s objects as ‘apples rounded as if drawn by compass, triangular pears, lopsided fruit bowls, napkins folded in a rage’. Cézanne’s artistic method involved a meticulous and contemplative approach whereby he deconstructed objects by breaking them down into basic forms through mindfully placed touches of colour. In a 1904 article, Bernard described Cézanne’s painting process, praising the result as ‘an imposing and lively synthesis’.
It is notable that while Bernard commended all aspects of Cézanne’s painting in his later articles, his own still lifes from 1887–88 reveal that he primarily adopted Cézanne’s stylization, pronounced contours and simple compositions and largely disregarded the master’s all-important rhythmic brushwork. Cézanne demonstrated with his brushwork that for him process and craft were central, while for Bernard the focus was on creating a decorative composition with plain shapes and unsaturated colours. Vase of Flowers and Cup exemplifies Bernard’s preference for simplicity, colour and decorative combination of forms, with pronounced brushwork playing a lesser role. Nevertheless, individual, albeit very subtle, brushstrokes can be discerned in the blue background.
Bernard had access to Cézanne’s work through Julien Tanguy’s (1925–1894) art supplies shop in Montmartre. Tanguy boasted an extensive collection, including several still lifes. Bernard might have seen some of them while visiting Tanguy’s shop, including Cézanne’s Still Life in Blue with Lemon and Milk Can and Apples ( and ). This type of uncomplicated composition with a limited number of objects seems to have been an important model for Bernard’s approach to still life. This influence is indeed well illustrated in Vase of Flowers and Cup. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, Bernard’s still life includes a faience earthenware cup, as is also found in Still Life in Blue with Lemon.
Van Gogh and Bernard’s still lifes
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) came into possession of Vase of Flowers and Cup when, just before leaving Paris for Arles on 19 February 1888, he exchanged several works with Bernard. The two artists had already met in 1886, initially in Fernand Cormon’s atelier and later through Tanguy’s shop. However, it was mainly after Bernard’s return from Brittany at the end of September 1887 that they spent much time together. They engaged in discussions about modern painting and often worked side by side. This frequently took place in the studio that Bernard’s parents had built for him in the garden of their Asnières home. There Van Gogh must have seen the paintings Bernard had brought with him from Brittany, as well as the still lifes he was working on that autumn. In later letters, Van Gogh expressed admiration for Bernard’s still lifes, although he did not specifically mention Vase of Flowers and Cup. One painting that particularly impressed Van Gogh was The Blue Coffeepot , which Bernard was still working on when Van Gogh last saw him shortly before his departure for Arles. In a letter to his brother Theo (1857–1891), Van Gogh described it as ‘superb’. It is worth noting that in May 1888 he painted his own Still Life with Coffeepot , which was most likely inspired by Bernard’s The Blue Coffeepot.
In August 1888, Van Gogh addressed his compliments to Bernard by letter. He praised two of his still lifes in addition to the portraits of his grandmother: ‘Have you ever done better, have you ever been more yourself, and someone? Not in my opinion. Profound study of the first thing to come to hand, of the first person to come along, was enough to really create something. Do you know what made me like these 3 or 4 studies so much? That je ne sais quoi of something deliberate, very wise, that je ne sais quoi of something steady and firm and sure of oneself, which they show.’ It is not entirely clear exactly which still lifes Van Gogh was referring to. While it is likely that he primarily wrote about The Blue Coffeepot, it is entirely possible that the second still life he mentioned was Vase of Flowers and Cup.
Van Gogh recognized Bernard’s still lifes as fully-fledged works of art in which simple objects were elevated into personal, expressive ensembles. Van Gogh praised the works as ‘tight, powerful and confident’ (‘fixe et ferme et sûr de soi’), aptly pointing to Bernard’s use of geometric shapes and intense colours.
Remarkably, Van Gogh did not share Bernard’s appreciation of Cézanne’s work. Years later, Bernard reflected on this difference of opinion and wrote that: ‘Vincent didn’t understand Cézanne’s style at all […] no matter how much he looked at his paintings, he found nothing of what he wanted in their experimentations.’ While Vincent admired Bernard’s still lifes, he disliked Cézanne’s studious and attentive examples. He seems to have preferred the visual means by which Bernard distanced himself from Cézanne, such as sharp contrasts and bright colours. Van Gogh perceived the brushwork in Cézanne’s work as being ‘almost diffident and conscientious’. In contrast, he found vigour and potency in that of Bernard.
Joost van der Hoeven