Elisabeth SONREL (Tours, 1874 – Sceaux, 1953)

Portrait of Jacqueline

41.8 x 30.8 cm. (16 7/16 x 12 1/8 in.)

Watercolor, gouache and gold leaf on paper
Label lower left, on the glass of frame: 285
Original pediment frame dated 1909, measuring 57.9 x 46 cm. (22 7/16 x 18 1/8 in.)

• Belgium, Private Collection.

• Charlotte Foucher, “Elisabeth Sonrel (1874-1953): une artiste symboliste oubliée,” Bulletin des amis de Sceaux, Sceaux, n°25, 2009.s

Trained in painting from an early age by her father Nicolas Stephane Sonrel, Elisabeth grew up in a family atmosphere favorable to an artistic career. Nonetheless, access to the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris was refused to women until 1897, so she entered the Julian Academy at age 17 to finish her education under Jules Lefebvre’s instruction.
Caught between two centuries, Sonrel followed early 20th century artistic decorative tendancies which centered attention on the female figure and Nature. Between Symbolism and Art Nouveau, her works also emanate a certain mysticism which she communicated through her sitters’ discreet wisdom and solemnity. Her subjects, which were mainly feminine, are characterized by two aesthetic qualities dear to the artist: tenderness and elegance.
The delicacy of her work was partially inspired by a trip to Florence at the beginning of the century which profoundly affected her style. Hence these female figures with sweet idealized faces and Botticellian gracefulness are depicted in arborescent settings which are also the consequence of many visits to the Breton Forest of Broceliande, the landscapes of Concarneau, and Plougastel.
In France, the second half of the 19th century saw a revival of the Middle Ages in reaction to the impact of Industrial Revolution economic upheavals. The idealization of this Medieval past inspired many artists who naturally placed the sacred at the heart of their work. This mystic vein intensely affected Sonrel’s oeuvre and brings it very close to contemporaries Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (Lyon, 1824 – Paris, 1898) and Edgar Maxence (Nantes, 1871 – La Bernerie-en-Retz, 1954) in terms of predominance of the sacred and a pantheistic vision of Nature.
In utilizing gold leaf around our figure, Sonrel brings an additional mystique which once more suggests the divine and is reminiscent of 14th century religious icons in their invitation to devotion. In our picture, the use of ochre hues for the cartouche under the figure announcing “JACQUELINE” also echoes the gold. In fact, unlike her contemporaries, Sonrel conferred these idealized women with names which made it possible to identify them as saints or pious figures by concentrating attention on facial details.
Thanks to a pastel palette which creates an evanescent effect, Sonrel expresses her sitters’ delicacy and melancholy to which the gold leaf adds a spiritual dimension. The artist’s broad use of watercolor technique allows her to create material effects, such as the light sfumato around her figures, inspired by her Italian sojourn.
Represented in the Salon of French Artists as well as that of the Society of French Watercolorists between 1893 and 1939, Elisabeth Sonrel met with unqualified success. A Symbolist artist, par excellence, her work was nonetheless unjustly forgotten for almost a century before being rehabilitated by critics in the 1990s. A specialist in depicting female portraits, she occupies a preponderant place today in early 20th century pictorial art.
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