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Artists Émile Henri Bernard
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Émile Henri Bernard

French Painter, Engraver, Poet, Writer, and Art Critic

Movements and Styles: Post-Impressionism, Cloisonnism, Synthetism, Symbolism

Born: April 28, 1868 - Lille, France

Died: April 16, 1941 - Paris, France

Émile Henri Bernard Timeline


Émile Bernard's most formative artistic years were spent in the city of Paris where the Impressionist style had arisen and dominated the avant garde scene into the 1880s. He immersed himself in the arts, attending exhibitions and visiting galleries and studying at the École des Arts Décoratifs beginning in 1884. He also trained at the well-respected Atelier Cormon, the studio of the artist and teacher, Fernand Cormon. There he met Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, with him he formed a lasting friendship. Eventually, he was dismissed for "insubordinate behavior" and thus the radical young artist struck out on his own.

Bernard's close friendships with Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, two of the most influential artists of the Post-Impressionist period, proved fruitful in many ways, not least of which was the trio's intense co-experimentation; frequently, the produced works in identical themes and also made portraits of one another. Bernard maintained an extensive personal correspondence with Van Gogh and the letters they exchanged provide a unique window into the relationship. It is said that he was the first person to become aware of the importance of Van Gogh's work. Interestingly, Van Gogh's criticism of his work, particularly the biblical themes, prompted Bernard to end the correspondence. In the late 1880s, Bernard developed his unique Cloisonnist and Synthetist styles, which were extraordinarily influential for artists such as Gauguin, Anquetin, and Sérusier.

Key Ideas

While technically not a member of the group, Bernard identified with the philosophical and mystical underpinnings of Symbolism both in art and literature, particularly with the poetry and ideas of Baudelaire and Mallarmé. His paintings and prints often feature Christian motifs. In numerous articles, letters, and statements, he described the symbolism in his work as a kind of "divine language."
Some of Bernard's most important writings are his observations on what he regarded as the avant garde's counter-productive, wholesale rejection of pictorial tradition. His critiques of modernist art mirror the transformation in his own style from his radical, anti-conventional Cloisonnism to the regressive, nostalgic realism of his late career.
Bernard is regarded as a critical force in the development of modern art, particularly in terms of promoting increased abstraction. While his post-1900s art reflects a pronounced rejection of abstraction and return to mid-1900s realism, the two styles for which he is best known, Cloisonnism and Synthetism, were markedly innovative and anti-traditional in their emphasis on flatness, outlining, and use of emotionally expressive, non-naturalistic color.
Bernard was to play another critical role in the life of Van Gogh when, following the suicide of Vincent and the death of Theo Van Gogh shortly after, he was appointed administrator of Van Gogh's affairs, including arranging for a posthumous exhibition and editing Van Gogh's letters.

Most Important Art

Émile Henri Bernard Famous Art

Madeleine in the Bois d'Amour (1888)

Bernard was 20 years old when he produced this portrait of his sister, Madeleine, who was 17 at the time. The portrait is life-size and depicts the chronically ill young woman lying in the Bois d'Amour, a small wooded area on the edge of Pont-Aven in Brittany.

Reclining and looking upward in her reverie, the body of Madeleine claims the entire width of the canvas, thereby visually splitting the canvas into two distinct parts: her body and the pleasant landscape. Bernard made multiple preparatory drawings on site for the painting, but then produced it in the studio. Cutting through the landscape is the river Aven, from which the village gets its name. The painting was made at the time Bernard was traveling on foot through Brittany and when he met Gauguin who had apparently fallen in love with the ailing younger sister of his new artist friend.

The picture marks the moment of Bernard's break with Impressionism once he met Gauguin and began absorbing the latter's ideas concerning Synthetist Symbolism, which was a stark, formal simplification of the elaborate Symbolism of artists like Gustave Moreau and Puvis de Chavannes. With Synthetism (from the French word "synthetiser" meaning "to synthesize"), objects are broken down into solid areas of color and mass while excessive details and any attempts at conveying perspective, depth, or volume are eliminated.

The inventors of Synthetism, Gauguin, Bernard, and Louis Anquetin, wanted to emphasize the difference between their work and Impressionism. Whereas Impressionists strived to describe objects in terms of light effects, generally eschewed line, and never relinquished the impulse to create illusionistic depth and volume in their works, the Synthetists emphasized flatness and outlining. They stated that their primary aim was to synthesize the feelings of the artist about a given subject, the supposed "purity" of color, line, and form, and the exterior appearance of forms in the natural world. If Impressionism was about capturing a moment in time as objectively as possible, Synthetism emphasized subjectivity - the emotional impetus of the artist that lay beneath the production of a painting.
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