Bernard (28 April 1868 – 16 April 1941) was a French
Post-Impressionist painter and writer, who had artistic
friendships with Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Eugène
Boch, and at a later time, Paul Cézanne. Most of his
notable work was accomplished at a young age, in the years
1886 through 1897. He is also associated with Cloisonnism
and Synthetism, two late 19th-century art movements. Less
known is Bernard's literary work, comprising plays, poetry,
and art criticism as well as art historical statements that
contain first hand information on the crucial period of
modern art to which Bernard had contributed.
Émile Henri Bernard was born in Lille, France in 1868. As in
his younger years his sister was sick, Émile was unable to
receive much attention from his parents; he therefore stayed
with his grandmother, who owned a laundry in Lille,
employing more than twenty people. She was one of the
greatest supporters of his art. The family moved to Paris in
1878, where Émile attended the Collège Sainte-Barbe.
He began his studies at the École des Arts Décoratifs. In
1884, joined the Atelier Cormon where he experimented with
impressionism and pointillism and befriended fellow artists
Louis Anquetin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. After being
suspended from the École des Beaux-Arts for "showing
expressive tendencies in his paintings", he toured Brittany
on foot, where he was enamored by the tradition and
In August 1886, Bernard met Gauguin in Pont-Aven. In this
brief meeting, they exchanged little about art, but looked
forward to meeting again. Bernard said, looking back on that
time, that "my own talent was already fully developed." He
believed that his style did play a considerable part in the
development of Gauguin's mature style.
Bernard spent September 1887 at the coast, where he painted
La Grandmère, a portrait of his grandmother. He continued
talking with other painters and started saying good things
about Gauguin. Bernard went back to Paris, met with van
Gogh, who as we already stated was impressed by his work,
found a restaurant to show the work alongside van Gogh,
Anquetin, and Toulouse-Lautrec's work at the Avenue Clichy.
Van Gogh called the group the School of Petit-Boulevard.
One year later, Bernard set out for Pont-Aven by foot and
saw Gauguin. Their friendship and artistic relationship grew
strong quickly. By this time Bernard had developed many
theories about his artwork and what he wanted it to be. He
stated that he had "a desire to [find] an art that would be
of the most extreme simplicity and that would be accessible
to all, so as not to practice its individuality, but
collectively…" Gauguin was impressed by Bernard's ability to
verbalize his ideas.
1888 was a seminal year in the history of Modern art.
From October 23, until December 23 Paul Gauguin and Vincent
van Gogh worked together in Arles. Gauguin had brought his
new style from Pont-Aven exemplified in Vision after the
Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, a powerful work of
visual symbolism of which he had already sent a sketch to
van Gogh in September.
He also brought along Bernard's Le Pardon de Pont-Aven which
he had exchanged for one of his paintings and which he used
to decorate the shared workshop. see in: (ref. Druick 2001)
This work was equally striking and illustrative of the style
Émile Bernard had already acquainted van Gogh with when he
sent him a batch of drawings in August, so much so that van
Gogh made a watercolor copy of the "Pardon" (December 1888)
which he sent to his brother, to recommend Bernard's new
style to be promoted. The following year van Gogh still
vividly remembered the painting in his written portrait of
Émile Bernard in a letter to his sister Wil
(Dec.10,1889):"...it was so original I absolutely wanted to
have a copy."
Bernard's style was effective and coherent (see:woman at
haystacks,) as can also be seen from the comparison of the
two "portraits" Bernard and Gauguin sent to van Gogh at the
end of September 1888 at the latter's request:
self-portraits -at Gauguin's initiative- each integrating a
small portrait of the other in the background. (ref. Druick
One of Émile Bernard's drawings from the August batch
("...a lane of trees near the sea with two women talking in
the foreground and some strollers" – Vincent van Gogh in a
letter to Bernard – Arles 1888) also appears to have
inspired the work van Gogh and Gauguin did on the Allée des
Alyscamps in Arles.
In 1891 he joined a group of Symbolist painters that
included Odilon Redon and Ferdinand Hodler.
In 1893 he started traveling, to Egypt, Spain and Italy and
after that his style became more eclectic. He returned to
Paris in 1904 and remained there for the remainder of his
life. He taught at the École des Beaux-Arts before he died
"[…] this creative, avant-garde young man destroyed
himself in a fight against that same avant-garde he had
helped to create. His rivalry with Gauguin led him out of
spite along a different path: classicism. This change took
place when he was living in the Middle East, in a period of
great crisis. But the fact remains that the young Bernard
played an essential part as an initiator for Gauguin, and
that he was the inventor of a new artistic vision."
Theories on style and art: Cloisonnism and Symbolism
Bernard theorized a style of painting with bold forms
separated by dark contours which became known as cloisonnism.
His work showed geometric tendencies which hinted at
influences of Paul Cézanne, and he collaborated with Paul
Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh.
Many say that it was Bernard's friend Anquetin, who
should receive the credit for this "closisonisme" technique.
During the spring of 1887, Bernard and Anquetin "turned
against Neo-Impressionism." It is also
likely that Bernard was influenced by the works he had seen
of Cézanne. But Bernard says "When I was in Brittany, I was
inspired by "everything that is superfluous in a spectacle
is covering it with reality and occupying our eyes instead
of our mind. You have to simplify the spectacle in order to
make some sense of it. You have, in a way, to draw its
"The first means that I use is to simplify nature to an
extreme point. I reduce the lines only to the main contrasts
and I reduce the colors to the seven fundamental colors of
the prism. To see a style and not an item. To highlight the
abstract sense and not the objective. And the second means
were to appeal to the conception and to the memory by
extracting yourself from any direct atmosphere. Appeal more
to internal memory and conception. There I was expressing
myself more, it was me that I was describing, although I was
in front of the nature. There was an invisible meaning under
the mute shape of exteriority."
Symbolism and religious motifs appear in both Bernard and
Gauguin's work. During the summer of 1889, Bernard was alone
in Le Pouldu and began to paint many religious canvasses. He
was upset that he had to do commercial work at the same time
that he wanted to create these pieces. Bernard wrote about
his relationship with the style of symbolism in many
letters, articles, and statements. He said that it was of a
Christian essence, divine language. Bernard believed that it
"It is the invisible express by the visible," and those previous attempts of religious symbolism
failed. That period of symbolism represented the nature of
beauty, but did not find the truth in the beauty. Art until
the renaissance was based on the invisible rather than the
visible, the idea, not the shapes or concrete. The history
of the painting of symbols was spiritual. Everything,
meaning symbols, were forgotten with the paganist ideas and
doctrines. That is what Bernard was attempting to accomplish
with the rebirth of symbolism in 1890. In his idea of the
new symbolism, he concentrated on maintaining a grounded
art, more authentic in Bernard's mind meant reducing
impressionism, not creating an optical trip like
Georges-Pierre Seurat, but simplifying the actual symbol.
His concept was that through ideas, not technique, the
truth is found.
It was always Émile Bernard's great frustration that Paul
Gauguin never mentioned him as an influence on pictorial
symbolism (see for instance his own notes attached to the
Belgian edition (1942) of his selected letters, published
shortly after his death). In 2001/2002 The Art Institute of
Chicago and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam held a joint
exhibition:Van Gogh and Gauguin:The Workshop of the South
that put Émile Bernard's contribution in perspective. (ref.
One of Émile Bernard's students was the Swedish painter
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