Georges-Charles DUFRESNE (Millemont, 1876 - La Seyne-sur-Mer, 1938)

The Wild Animal Tamer

42 x 47 cm. (16 ½ x 18 ½ in.)
. Ink and watercolor on brown paper laid down on canvas. Signed and dated lower left : "dufresne 1917.” On verso : label from the Stiebel Gallery.

• Stiebel Gallery, Stiebel, Paris (according to label on verso).
• France, Private Collection.

The Artist
After an initial apprenticeship under an engraver, Charles Dufresne entered the studio of the medal maker Hubert Ponscamme as an independent student. He next worked for the sculptor Alexander Charpentier. The young artist successfully exhibited medals in the Salon de la Nationale in 1902, and in the Salon des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the Salon de la Libre Esthétique in Brussels in 1903.

Two years later, however, he exhibited eight pastels in the Salon des Indépendants, for in the meantime, Dufresne “who was envied by the most well known medal makers for his knowledge of modeling, abandoned wax and the roughing-chisel for pastels.” As the critic Charles Saunier continued,

“And a new Dufrêne (sic), not entirely unforeseen for those who have the good fortune to know the artist, to enjoy his spirit of observation and spontaneity, appears. A Dufrêne closely related to Degas, conveying in his own new way, the picturesque qualities of the café concert, the bearing of its usual customers, of those who live from it and those who suffer. All of this expressed in very sober drawing which keeps to essentials and is highlighted with vibrant hues. After all, Dufresne’s pastels are perhaps the chief attraction in the Salon des Indépendants, the biggest novelty in this rendez-vous so full of audacity.”

Dufresne in Algeria
A singular self-taught painter, influenced both by contemporaries such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas, and by old masters such as Veronese, Tiepolo, and Rubens, Charles Dufresne received a fellowship for the Villa Abd-el-Tif in Algiers in 1910. The “Algerian Villa Medici,” which was more liberal and open to modern art tendancies than the Roman institution, welcomed artists whose personalities were already manifest and made it possible for them to work without constraints. This two-year sojourn liberated the artist’s need for exoticism. Under Algerian skies, he renounced pastels for India ink, while seeking to capture North Africa’s very special light, and then turned towards watercolor and oils which translated more effectively than velvety pastels the chromatic intensity of Oriental life.

The Wild Animal Tamer
Back in Paris, Dufresne continued to exploit Algerian themes without, for all of that, abandoning his Parisian observations of cafe-concerts, the circus, and pleasure gardens with their dancing and music, now handled in nervous brushstrokes that tended to stiffen, and with attentive distribution of shadows and lighting. It is during this period immediately before the war that The Wild Animal Tamer conserved at the Pompidou Center belongs. It is a spaceless work in blended sepia in which wild beasts with angular contours confront the limp three-dimensionality of the circus woman.

World War I and our Drawing
The First World War separates our drawing dated 1917 from this sheet from which he repeats the distribution. Mobilised in the infantry in 1914, affected by gas in 1916, Dufresne was transferred to the Camouflage Section of the Third Army. The artist returned from the front with a darkened palette, a mat surface and a geometric line which synthesized Cubism and Fauvism in a very personal fashion. The slanting wall panel against which the tamer leans and the few steps situate the scene in the wings of the circus or the cage-car of the wild animals. Waiting for her entry into the ring, the young blond woman gazes at the spectator calmly, her arms crossed on her chest. To the left, curiously shelved, a lion and leopard straight from the Orientalist bestiary seem indifferent while retaining their savage power.

Development of Style in Our Drawing
Here Dufresne develops contrasting line plays, while multiplying vertical strokes in black ink which evoke the bars of the cage, although they are too short to reach the top of the page and really enclose the felines. These lines are, for that matter, counter-balanced by the broad contoured interlocking half-circles which form the muscular bodies of the animals and the svelte figure of the tamer. Each fine stroke is doubled with short hatching which seems like stumping and creates an unexpected impression of depth. The broken oblique brushstrokes loaded with ochre shades saturate the surface with a decorative controlled effect and participate in the synergy of the tamer and felines.

In contrast with the colored tumult of the Circus Scene – Medrano by Dufresne in the same period with its pure colors and entangled lines, our drawing depicts the opposite of the flamboyant stageset in order to dramatize the peaceful melancholy daily life of the circus.

General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Philippe CHABERT, Charles Dufresne, 1876-1938: rétrospective, exh. cat. Troyes, Museum of Modern Art, 1987.

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