44 x 57 cm. (17 5⁄16 x 22 7⁄16 in.)
Pastel on paper laid down on canvas
Signed lower left: « L. Lhermitte »
• Monique Le Pelley Fonteny, Léon Augustin Lhermitte 1844-1925: catalogue raisonné, Cercle d’art, Paris, 1991, ill. no. 508 (black & white), p. 248, entitled “ Une route en Artois” (A road in Artois).
• Boussod, Valadon & Cie, 21058 ;
• Glaenger Collection ;
• France, Private Collection.
"[…] There’s surprising mastery in everything he [Lhermitte] does, excelling especially in modeling, he perfectly satisfies everything which honesty demands." Vincent Van Gogh
In 1882, the French State acquired the monumental work, The Reapers’ Wages for the Luxembourg Museum. Praised by the critics, the artist Leon Lhermitte thus became a key figure in contemporary painting. On this occasion, his friend Auguste Rodin sent him his congratulations in a letter to which the artist responded that the sculptor was part of the “very small number whose appreciation is precious to him.” Subsequently identified as one of the major representatives of peasant painting under the IIIrd Republic, Lhermitte was particularly fond of depicting the surroundings of his native village, Mont-Saint-Père in the Aisne region. Inspired by Corot, the Barbizon School, and Jules Breton among others, the artist moved around regularly and drew in plein air, so as to sketch the landscapes in the Picardy countryside on site using pastels and charcoal.
The Revolution of 1848 rejected mythological subjects privileged by the Academy. In the 1850s, the peasant population represented 75% of the French population, and naturally carved a major place for itself at the heart of the arts, the principal ones being painting and literature.
Lhermitte drew close to and benefitted from the aura of Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884), an outdoor painter celebrated by Zola in his Complete Works. With Bastien-Lepage, he developed his taste for working outdoors, as he followed and studied the peasants going about their daily occupations. The public appreciated the sincerity in his work that did not seek to embellish the figures nor to remodel the landscapes.
Leon Lhermitte was a painter of reality, as was Jean-François Millet (1814-1875). As much in his figures as in the Nature that surrounded them, the artist wished above all to capture the present instant. For that, he privileged pastel and charcoal, which were very much in fashion in England, did not require preparation, and made it possible to produce instantly. In our work, his direct observation of nature reveals a sensation of immediate reality indicated by the rapidity of the lines.
Through the use of pastel, the artist plays with the paper’s grain and creates a blended effect which adds volume. Our picture presents the characteristics of a piece sketched outside and then reworked in the studio. The four figures in the foreground are handled in transparencies and play with the background which has already been sketched in. Thus they give the impression that the oeuvre was thought out in two stages, a first version capturing peaceful country life, and a second version enlivened in both the foreground and the background. His works were skillfully constructed, often geometricized, as can be seen by the orthogonal line formed by the dirt road in our picture which instantly establishes a strong diagonal which energizes the composition.
Exhibited by Durand-Ruel in London in 1875, celebrated by public opinion and by the State which acquired some of his most beautiful works, as well as commissioning decoration for the Hôtel de Ville and the Sorbonne, Leon Lhermitte was a much appreciated artist in his lifetime and turns out to be an emblematic figure in 19th century peasant painting.