One of the tricks art history plays on us is to maintain the fiction that artists fall neatly into schools – this one an Impressionist, that one a Symbolist, etc. Of course these movements exist, as tides in the history of art, and of course artists do ally themselves to them. Some artists cause the tides, others are swept along by the current. But life is never quite as neat as history, and one of the results of this way of categorizing art is that artists who fall between two schools tend to get unfairly ignored.
This is true of the two artists I intend to discuss today, who also happened to be close friends, Edmond Aman-Jean and Albert Besnard. It was Aman-Jean and Besnard who founded the Salon des Tuileries, in 1922. The art of both is alternately described as Symbolist and Impressionist, without either label being really satisfactory. In Achille Segard’s Peintres d’aujourd’hui (1914), Aman-Jean and Besnard are treated in a volume entitled Les Décorateurs, alongside other hard-to-classify artists - Vuillard, Denis, La Touche, Chéret, Baudouin, and Henri Martin.
Aman-Jean is celebrated especially as a painter of women, whom he represented as withdrawn and mysterious, rapt in their own thoughts and ultimately unknowable. Both of the recent books on him have the word “femme” in the title: Patrick-Gilles Persin’s Aman-Jean, Peintre de la Femme (1993), and Baligand et. Al., Aman-Jean, Songes des Femmes (2003). Aman-Jean’s friend Ernest Laurent depicted women in a similar dream-like and withdrawn manner.
Ernest-Joseph Laurent, Soir d’Octobre, lithograph, 1898
Edmond François Aman-Jean was born in Chevry-Cossigney (Seine et Marne). His real name was Edmond François Jean Amand. Orphaned at the age of 10, Edmond Aman-Jean was taken in by an uncle in Paris. He commenced his art studies in the atelier of the sculptor Justin Lequien; one of his fellow pupils was Georges Seurat, and the two became close friends. In 1878 Aman-Jean and Seurat moved on to the Paris Beaux-Arts together, to study in the atelier of Henri Lehmann. Aman-Jean, Seurat, and fellow-student Ernest Laurent fell under the spell of Impressionism at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition of 1879, and resolved to leave the Beaux-Arts. Although closely associated with Seurat, Edmond Aman-Jean was more influenced by Symbolism than Pointillism, perhaps because of his close friendships with the Symbolist poets Mallarmé and Verlaine (of whom he made a ghostly lithographic portrait in 1891).
In 1881, Aman-Jean discovered the work of Puvis de Chavannes, and from 1883 he worked with Puvis on the grand "Bois Sacré" that decorates one wall of the staircase of the Beaux-Arts de Lyon. Aman-Jean produced his first lithographs around 1890, encouraged by Léonce Bénédite. My lithograph Sous les fleurs, from 1898, is typical of Aman-Jean’s colour lithographs; it was published by L’Estampe moderne.
Edmond Aman-Jean, Sous les fleurs, lithograph, 1898
Edmond Aman-Jean took up etching in 1908 under the influence and tutelage of his close friend Albert Besnard. Aman-Jean etched between 20 and 30 plates, starting with sketches of dogs and geese, then studies of his children and Besnard's, and ending with a series of studies of a female model. Aman-Jean seems to have made these etchings for his own pleasure without any intention of publishing them; he pulled a few proofs of each subject and set them aside.
Revue de l’Art ancien et moderne, exemplaire XI
In 1926, André Dezarrois, editor of the monthly Revue de l’Art ancien et moderne, interviewed Aman-Jean about these etchings, and chose one to publish in the Revue. This etching, La femme à la corbeille (Woman with a basket of fruit), an astonishing tour-de-force, showing the influence of the Fauves. Aman-Jean told Dezarrois, "Les autres planches que vous aimez sont faites d'après un modèle assez beau, que j'avais à l'époque. Oui, on le reconnaît bien avec ses fruits, ses corbeilles." La femme à la corbeille is so far as I know the only one of Aman-Jean’s etchings to be formally published. I don’t know how many copies were printed; I would guess the Revue had a print run of 500 or so. There were also about 20 special copies printed for the Revue’s Comité de Rédaction (6 members, including Dezarrois and Bénédite) and Comité de Patronage (8 members). These were exemplaires nominatifs, with a special title page, numbered in sequence and named to a specific person. They also had the original graphics in two states, the extra plate usually being printed on better paper, and often hand-signed by the artist. I’ve been lucky enough to acquire one of these, with the Aman-Jean etching printed on Japan paper and hand-signed in pencil. Because he was so casual about them, signed Aman-Jean etchings are almost non-existent, so this is a true rarity.
Edmond Aman-Jean, La femme à la corbeille, 1908
After mastering the art of etching with such enthusiasm, Aman-Jean then abandoned it, fearing it would distract him from his painting. Before WWI Aman-Jean had considerable success as a painter, in the United States as well as in France. The Salon des Tuileries mounted an exhibition of his work in homage in the year after his death. More recently there was a retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs de Paris in 1970, and another in Douai, Carcassonne, and Bourg-en-Bresse in 2003-4.
Albert Besnard, Étude de nu, etching, 1905
Albert Besnard was born in Paris and studied at the Beaux-Arts under Cabanel. Besnard made his debut at the Salon of 1868 at the age of just 19. As an etcher, Albert Besnard was influenced by Whistler and also by his friend Anders Zorn. Besnard’s etchings were intensely admired in his day, with a 1920 catalague raisonné by André-Charles Coppier, Les Eaux-fortes de Besnard. This was just one of at least 8 monographs on Besnard published between 1913 and 1933, but I can find only one subsequent work, Albert Besnard, L’oeuvre grave, published by the Bibliothèque Nationale in 1949. So he is an artist absolutely ripe for rediscovery.
Albert Besnard, Portrait de Madame Roger-Jourdain, interpretative etching by André-Charles Coppier, 1900
Besnard, like Aman-Jean, was particularly known for studies of women. One of my Besnard etchings is an interpretative etching by André-Charles Coppier after Besnard’s 1886 portrait of the Society hostess and famed beauty Henriette Roger-Jourdain, which is now in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Mme Roger-Jourdain was also painted by John Singer Sargent and by Giovanni Boldini.
Albert Besnard, Femme nue, etching, 1911
My original Besnard etchings include two nudes, in a style not far from that of Renoir, and a very striking study of a girl with dishevelled hair, wrapped in a blanket; she could have stepped out of a Toulouse-Lautrec.
Albert Besnard, Étude, etching/aquatint, 1906
Besnard lived in London in the 1880s, where he was friendly with Whistler and Tissot. It was at Besnard’s London home that Tissot, grieving for his mistress and model Kathleen Newton, asked the famous medium William Eglinton to hold a series of séances to try to contact her. On the night of May 20th 1885, Eglinton fell over in a trance. Clouds of luminous smoke formed around him, which materialised in the form of a woman. One contemporary claimed that this was really a model who worked for Besnard, but Tissot was convinced it was Kathleen; he recorded the experience in an oil painting and a mezzotint. Tissot also later etched a portrait of Eglinton for a biography by the lexicographer and pornographer J. S. Farmer.