Atelier · February 23, 2007

Friday in the atelier: “L’escrimeuse” by Jean Béraud

I’m going to admit to a guilty pleasure this week. I like Jean Béraud!

Yes, I know; I’ve just lost any street cred’ that I might have held among art snobs. I do apologize – it can’t be lobster and caviar every night! Sometimes it’s just hotdogs and a diet Coke; and that’s okay too.

Béraud is like hotdogs for the eyes; interesting while you consume it, satisfying, and somewhat forgettable afterwards. You won’t be poleaxed into awed silence by a Béraud painting, but you won’t be ashamed to serve one up during a party with your friends.

The first painting I’m displaying is a cropped detail of “The Swordswoman”. I love the saucy way that she looks directly at the viewer, in a sort of joyful challenge and with a love of life. I’ll bet she is good with that piece of metal in her hands too!

I’m also displaying a cropped detail of, “Envole d’un Biplan Type Wright”. This painting brings out the geek in me. (Well, even more than usual.) The “Beautiful Time” in France is the setting to many steampunk stories, and what can be more steampunk than a Wright brother’s style biplane? This painting commemorates Wilbur Wright’s famous public demonstrations of the Wright Flyer at the Hunaudières horse racing track near the town of Le Mans, France. It also encapsulates the Belle Époque as a time of science and Enlightenment.

Béraud lived from 1849 to 1935. He used both academic and impressionist styles, and his subjects were of the Belle Époque of Paris, or in the religious genre. His father was a sculptor who died when Jean was only four years old. There is no indication that Béraud painted or was interested in art as a child – instead as a young adult he studied to become a lawyer. Upon graduation instead of practicing law he decided instead to study under Léon Bonnat. This probably had something to do with the Franco-Prussian war and the invasion of France by German forces, which began about the same time Béraud graduated from law school. The post-war government suffered significant changes which may have made a lawyer’s career unattractive.

After the war, life in Paris started to become more normal. There was a lot of debt, but peace between France and its European neighbors allowed a period of greater prosperity and technological progress. This was the beginning of the Belle Époque, the “Beautiful Time”, when people were very optimistic about the future. Coffee shops, cabarets, workshops, art galleries, concert halls and living rooms of the middle class became focal points where the ideals of Enlightenment and science were discussed.

It was during this time that Béraud studied art under Bonnat and then exhibited his portraits at the Salon de Paris. His breakthrough painting was titled, “On the way back from the funeral”. I wish I could find a digital copy of this painting online; could someone help me out here?

At the age of 38 he was appointed Chevalier of the Legion of Honour for his increasingly popular works. He displayed a series of religious paintings over several years, starting at the age of 42 with “Mary Magdalen at the Pharisee’s“. This painting was considered daring because it adapted Gospel figures to modern times.

As the century came to an end, Béraud painted less as he became more active in the politics of art communities. His artistic output during the last 30 years of his life was minimal, even as he lived in the thick of the art world.

No one else has said it, so I will. I think the politics of art – setting up juries of art critics to judge exhibitions, sitting on committees and assisting in the creation of art societies – all fulfilled a need that Béraud had given up as a young law school graduate. I think his heart had been set in practicing law in pre-war France, and when he saw that he could do something with his earlier training he jumped at the chance.

I don’t think Béraud was unhappy at being a second-best painter, I think he was delighted that he could again practice his first love; law and politics in beautiful Paris.