Sophie Albertine Bodin-Lallement (1813–1895), Emile Bernard’s maternal grandmother, was very dear to him and was one of his favourite models. Bernard (1868–1941) drew and painted her with great regularity from the very beginning of his artistic career. For instance, he painted her in her parlour during the summer holidays that he spent with her in Lille throughout his adolescence and drew her while she cared for her ailing husband ( and ). When the latter died in 1887, Bernard’s grandmother moved in with her daughter in Asnières. Bernard had the opportunity to reunite with her when he returned to his parents’ home in late September that year, after spending his second consecutive summer in Brittany. Soon thereafter, he painted a series of three portraits of his grandmother, the most elaborate version of which is in the Van Gogh Museum. The other likenesses are in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City ( and ). A pen drawing of her portrait is also in the Van Gogh Museum .
A close bond
Bernard shared a very close bond with his grandmother. In 1894, in a letter to her, he wrote: ‘Without taking away from my mother by blood what is due to her, I can love you according to what you have always done for me: as a true mother.’ She supported him in all his artistic activities and seemed to be the only one in the family to truly comprehend his avant-garde experiments, leading Bernard to regard himself and his grandmother as ‘the two pariahs of the house’ (‘les deux parias de la maison’). However, it is important to note some nuances in his perception. In later writings, Bernard attributed all the familial support he received to his grandmother, while portraying his parents as sceptical of his artistic pursuits. Yet, in examining letters from the period, it becomes evident that his parents did indeed provide him with both financial and moral support.
In this particular portrait, Bernard depicted his grandmother from her left side. Her head is turned towards the viewer as she gazes out somewhat imperiously with one eye. She is dressed in mourning clothes, reflecting the recent loss of her husband. Bernard positioned her in front of a dark red curtain with a grey-blue floral motif. The partially opened curtain provides a glimpse of a dark brown space behind it, suggesting the wooden studio Bernard had at his disposal from the autumn of 1887: his parents had it constructed in their garden while he was travelling in Brittany. Incidentally, this dark colour between the curtains is a later addition. The X-radiograph shows that the pattern in the curtain originally continued into the background. To the right of Bernard’s grandmother is a large hatbox, and behind it a pillow or quilt.
Bernard first outlined his grandmother in blue paint, then used a large brush to apply her skin tone, as well as her grey hair and widow’s weeds. He subsequently delineated her facial features with black paint, after which he covered her entire face with narrow parallel and vertical brushstrokes. To enhance the solidity of the contours, he added another thick black outline along the head, neck and clothing. Bernard painted the background and the attributes on the right of the composition around his grandmother, presumably later in the process. Of particular note is the white pillow or quilt, which he applied in vertical brushstrokes with lots of impasto. The powerful contrast with the black of the clothes – which is in fact a mixture of several pigments – infuses dynamism into the composition’s otherwise sombre palette. Moreover, the upper half of the canvas features a busy decorative floral motif on the curtain, which forms an effective foil to the plain geometric shapes dominating the lower half.
Bernard’s technique served a painting style that aimed to simplify motifs to their most essential form. In rendering his grandmother and the objects around her, he employed crisp and clear lines along with parallel brushstrokes, resulting in a stylized representation. Bernard referred to these works as his synthèses géométriques (geometric syntheses), but the style is better known as cloisonnism. By his own account, Bernard developed this style together with Louis Anquetin (1861–1932) in early 1887, following their rejection of neo-impressionism. Until this rejection, Bernard had extensively experimented in painting with small dots. However, after visiting the studio of the neo-impressionist par excellence Paul Signac (1863–1935), he concluded that ‘the mechanical work of pointillism seems to me to be the opposite of any true temperament’. Furthermore, Bernard found the figures in that style to be stiff and rigid, as though ‘made of wood’.
Instead of breaking down colours into short strokes and dots, Bernard and Anquetin pursued a théorie contraire (contrary theory) in which they focused on lines and planes of uniform colour. They drew inspiration from various sources, including medieval tapestries, stained glass and Japanese prints. In Bernard’s words, ‘The study of Japanese crépons [woodblock prints] led us towards simplicity; we created cloisonnism. In early 1887, Bernard and Anquetin attended a sales exhibition of Vincent van Gogh’s (1853–1890) vast collection of Japanese prints at the Paris café Le Tambourin. Van Gogh, already a friend of both artists, had organized the show. Although a financial failure, according to Van Gogh, it had ‘quite an influence on Anquetin and Bernard’.
Japanese prints and Cézanne
In the Portrait of Bernard’s Grandmother, the impact of Japanese woodblock prints is evident in several aspects, including the use of strongly defined outlines and areas of even colour to depict the clothing and cushion. Moreover, the lack of depth in the composition is also characteristic of Japanese prints. Later, Bernard described the contrast between black and white, which plays a prominent role in the portrait of his grandmother, as a pictorial device that both he and Van Gogh employed in emulation of Japanese prints.
Aside from Japanese prints, in early 1887 Bernard became fascinated by the work of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), which he was able to see in the shop of Julien ‘Père’ Tanguy (1825–1894) in Paris. The latter not only sold painting supplies but also dealt in the work of some avant-garde artists, including Bernard himself. For Bernard, Cézanne served as an example to ‘perfect’ his cloisonnism. Bernard combined parallel hatched paint strokes borrowed from Cézanne with his own characteristic contour lines and flat planes, to arrive at what he called his ‘perfected cloisonnism’. In the Portrait of Bernard’s Grandmother, this ‘Cézannesque’ facture is particularly visible in the depiction of the face and cushion.
Toward the essence
Both Japanese art and the work of Cézanne provided Bernard with a model for simplifying his motifs. He believed that this simplification allowed him to distil the true essence from reality. On this, he wrote the following: ‘Anything that overloads a spectacle covers it in reality and occupies our eyes to the detriment of our minds. You have to simplify the spectacle to draw out its meaning. You have to take a schematic approach, as it were.’ Bernard actively rejected a style that placed visual perception at its core. What mattered more than ‘nature’ was ‘the invisible meaning hidden beneath the mute form of exterior appearance’.
In his early attempts at portraiture, he struggled to capture the essence of his subjects. In the summer of 1887, while in Brittany, he expressed his frustration to his parents, writing, ‘My portraits are turning into fairground wax figures, you can’t imagine.’ Although it is unknown to which portraits Bernard was referring, his words suggest that he found his fledgling results lacking vitality, a criticism he had previously directed towards Signac’s pointillism. However, the Portrait of Bernard’s Grandmother demonstrates a significant development in his artistic style, in which he employed his abstract painting techniques to create a compelling and lifelike portrayal. Using just a few lines and areas of colour, he successfully captured his grandmother’s vivid likeness and convincingly conveyed her facial expression. Although he overtly applied the cloisonnist style, the simplification of the subject did not compromise her human qualities. With this portrait, Bernard skilfully managed to convey the essence of his grandmother on canvas.
The other versions
The other likenesses that Bernard painted of his grandmother in the autumn of 1887 differ in terms of style from the work in the Van Gogh Museum. The portrait in Boston, for instance, showcases a more fluid brushwork, allowing Bernard to effectively convey the texture of his grandmother’s clothing. However, the frontal lighting in this portrait renders her face somewhat monotonous, diminishing its distinctive features. The portrait in Kansas City demonstrates a lower level of ambition: it is smaller in size and appears to be unfinished. Noteworthy is that the likenesses in Boston and Kansas City bear Bernard’s signature, whereas the one in the Van Gogh Museum does not. However, the presence of a signature does not necessarily indicate the order in which the works were created. Bernard was known to sign his paintings at a later time, and that seems to have been the case with these two works.
Van Gogh and the exchange
During the autumn of 1887, Bernard and Van Gogh collaborated closely on multiple occasions. They would often meet and paint together in Bernard’s wooden studio in his parents’ garden. It was during these sessions that they worked on their respective portraits of Père Tanguy. They engaged in discussions about the development of modern painting and the significance of Japanese prints in that context. Van Gogh greatly admired Bernard’s likeness of his grandmother. A year later, he wrote to Bernard in highly laudatory terms about a group of works that included the Portrait of Bernard’s Grandmother. He exclaimed: ‘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. You’ve never been closer to Rembrandt, my dear chap, than then.’ Recognizing the potency of the Portrait of Bernard’s Grandmother, Van Gogh praised Bernard’s ability to transform ordinary objects or individuals in their immediate surroundings into extraordinary works of art, drawing a parallel between Bernard’s work and that of Rembrandt. Van Gogh acquired the work from Bernard in exchange for his own Self-Portrait with Straw Hat (1887, Detroit Institute of Arts). In turn, the Portrait of Bernard’s Grandmother may have stimulated Van Gogh to paint the An Old Woman of Arles soon after he arrived in Arles in early 1888.
The ‘Petit Boulevard’
The Portrait of Bernard’s Grandmother was one of two works Bernard submitted to the exhibition organized by Van Gogh at the Grand Bouillon-Restaurant du Chalet on the boulevard de Clichy in Montmartre. This exhibition took place in November and December 1887 and featured the work of a number of artists from the ‘Petit Boulevard’. Van Gogh saw these artists as a new avant-garde, setting themselves apart from the more established ‘Grand Boulevard’, the impressionists, who were already selling their work for steep prices through established art dealers. In addition to Bernard, the other participating artists were Anquetin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901), Arnold Koning (1860–1945) and Van Gogh himself. According to Bernard, the representation of works at the exhibition was somewhat imbalanced. Bernard had only two paintings on display, while Van Gogh exhibited ‘fifty or a hundred’.
Among the artists considered part of the ‘Petit Boulevard’, Van Gogh also included the neo-impressionists Seurat and Signac. However, Bernard disagreed so fundamentally with their approach to painting that he refused to exhibit alongside them. He was so deeply convinced of the validity of the cloisonnist style that he employed in Portrait of Bernard’s Grandmother that he became intolerant of any other approach. Van Gogh confronted Bernard about his uncompromising stance in a letter: ‘If, therefore, you’ve already considered that Signac and the others who are doing pointillism often make very beautiful things with it – instead of running those things down, one should respect them and speak of them sympathetically, especially when there’s a falling out. Otherwise one becomes a narrow sectarian oneself, and the equivalent of those who think nothing of others and believe themselves to be the only righteous ones.’
Despite Van Gogh’s well-intentioned advice, Bernard seems to have remained steadfast in his attitude, which ultimately had an adverse effect on his career. By refusing to exhibit alongside Signac, Bernard missed out on opportunities for exposure and recognition. In contrast, Anquetin was more accommodating and did not shy away from showing with Signac at the fifth exhibition of Les XX in 1888. Anquetin’s entry caught the attention of the art critic Edouard Dujardin, who wrote a laudatory review in La revue indépendente, proclaiming Anquetin as the first practitioner of cloisonnism. Thus, despite creating progressive paintings such as Portrait of Bernard’s Grandmother, Bernard missed out on the recognition he doubtless deserved.
Joost van der Hoeven