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19th Century European Art
Lot 131: JULES-ALEXIS MUENIER FRENCH, 1863-1942 THE BEST DAYS (AUX BEAUX JOURS)
signed J.A. Muenier and dated 1889 Coulevon (lower right)
oil on canvas
Sale, Sotheby's, New York, The Collection of Alberto Pinto, March 29, 1999, lot 631, illustrated
Paris, Salon, 1890, no. 663 (illustrated in the exh. cat., p. 52)
LITERATURE AND REFERENCES
Gabriel P. Weisberg, Beyond Impressionism: the Naturalist Impulse in European Art, 1860-1905, New York, 1992, pp. 12-14, 25, 34, 38-40, illustrated
The impact of photography on artists and critics was felt almost as soon as the new medium was invented. While many considered this new technology a change for the better, photography was widely debated throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. And its advent was a major component of the methods and theories of a new group of artists, who called themselves the Naturalists. One of the first critics to use the term and define its ideas was Jules-Antoine Castagnary (1830-1888). He understood the Naturalists' ideal of faithfully recording nature without allowing any extraneous sentiment or artifice to come between the artist and the canvas. However, this is not to say that these artists were painting final works directly from their plein air sources. Rather, they were expected to bring all scientific and artistic resources to bear on capturing a specific moment in time, within a contemporary setting. Jules Castagnary identified fitting Naturalist subjects in 1857 and then again in 1863: "Nature in landscape painting, humanity in genre painting?these are the proper concerns of art. Life everywhere: scattered all over the canvas in landscape painting, concentrated in portraiture"..."Art is the equilibrium of truth and science...the Naturalist school reestablished the severed relationship between man and nature"(Weisberg, p. 13)
Emile Zola was another major proponent of Naturalism's advance. He adapted Castagnary's principles for painting to his writing, and in so doing, became Naturalism's most famous champion. Zola became obsessed with photography in the 1890's. This interest was coupled with his earlier practice of recording in his carnets any incident or experience he found intriguing while traveling the countryside as a journalist. Zola's emphases on real observation, the new concept of psychological analysis, and the use of photography made him a true Naturalist in his writing, and won many followers to the movement. But there were still those who felt photography had displaced the imagination of painters, and was sure to ruin painting as an art form.
The Naturalists were not persuaded to reject photography, and forward thinking critics were quick to oppose the traditionalists. Francis Wey, a critic and close friend of Courbet, wrote of photography's ultimate benefit to truly gifted painters: "What is the primary, the true, the grand culprit, in the eyes of the academic painters and critics? What is this revolutionary, the pitiless leveler of modern art? Photography! To us, rather...photography will constrain the artist to rise above mechanical copying of objects...it will abolish that which has only a semblance of the ideal...It will supply [the artist] with irrefutable arguments to justify the boldest fantasies of the imagination."(Weisberg, p. 25)
Jules Muenier fully embraced Naturalism. By the time he was to paint the present work, Aux beaux Jours, in 1889, he was an accomplished photographer as well as an academically trained painter. A student of Jean Léon Gérôme (see lots 10, 13, and 201) Muenier painted this work at Coulevon, in Gérôme's former country house, where in addition to a painter's studio, Muenier had installed a room to make his own photographic negatives. Muenier's photos of Coulevon are numerous, and showed his interest in recording the town as well as its inhabitants. Though the pictures appear as if the peasants captured on film were entirely unaware of his presence, he actually posed them very carefully for these works. He sometimes used the photographs as the basis for oils, but they were also often created for their own artistic merits. Dr. Gabriel Weisberg writes that another leading early Naturalist painter, Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, was "so taken with the truthful quality of these portraits that he wrote that Muenier 'would become the Nadar of the Photographic Society of the Haute Saône.'"(Weisberg, p. 34)
Though Aux Beaux Jours was always conceived as a painting, Muenier used photography as an integral part of its creation, and in the way he wanted the work to be perceived. With the help of recently rediscovered photographs (figures 1 - 4), Dr. Weisberg describes the way the process worked: "Completed in 1889, the painting resulted from an intricate process that relied on a series of photographic studies, traced and transferred drawings, and reference to actual models on several occasions during the painting's evolution to modify light and color." (Weisberg, p. 39) Muenier used the members of his family as models-- his wife, young son, and in-laws. First, Muenier took numerous preparatory photographs in which their positions changed often. The most dramatic change between the different photos was the pose of the child and his relationship with his mother. Next, Muenier transferred the negative images onto tracing paper, and he drew squared off, calibrated drawings based on the projected images. It is likely that Muenier used a "magic lantern" to move the images from the negative to the tracing paper. Though there isn't direct evidence of the lantern in the photographs, Dr. Weisberg confirms that family members do remember seeing one in his studio. With these drawings as aids, Muenier began to paint the oil in his studio. The third stage was to return his models, now with the large oil on canvas, outdoors again. The season had changed and Muenier used a portable studio (see Fig. 4) to avoid painting with the canvas unprotected in variable weather. Dr. Weisberg has an interesting theory about why this photo of Muenier with the portable studio exists: "these photographs indicate that the artist wanted it known that he worked outdoors on this painting. This documentation...serves as a form of propaganda and verifies that the painting was done outside...Integral to his process was the inventive way Muenier grafted photography onto academic practices and then tried to document with photographs that the scene had been completely painted outside." (Weisberg, pp. 38-39)
For other works, in lieu of the "studio on wheels," Muenier captured the plein air effect he wanted by painting in a glassed-in greenhouse. In this way he achieved, in an authentic Naturalist way, the effects of light and color he wanted on days with prohibitively poor weather. Muenier's elaborate process in creating Aux Beaux Jours demonstrates Naturalist principles put into practice. The picture's success underscores that school's powerful ideas and their forward thinking embrace of the newest technological developments.
We would like to thank Dr. Gabriel Weisberg for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.
51 1/2 by 53 3/4 in.
131 by 137 cm
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19th Century European Art