31 x 49 cm. (12 3⁄16 x 19 5⁄16 in.)
Black chalk, wash, pencil, watercolor and heightened white on buff paper
Signed Elisabeth Sonrel. at the bottom left
• Christie’s, New York, 16 February 1993, lot 278
• Angleterre, Private Collection.
• Charlotte Foucher, "Elisabeth Sonrel (1874-1953) : une artiste symboliste oubliée," Bulletin des Amis de Sceaux, Sceaux, n°25, 2009.
Trained from a young age in art by her father Nicolas Stéphane Sonrel who was an amateur painter, Elisabeth grew up in a family milieu favorable to an artistic career. Her first known work dates to 1890 when Elisabeth was 16 years old. Although access to the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris was denied to women until 1897, she was able to finish her education by entering the Julian Academy in 1891 under the teaching of Jules Lefebvre (1836-1911), a painter and teacher famous during his lifetime.
Caught between two centuries, Sonrel followed early 20th century decorative artistic trends in placing the female figure and Nature at the center of attention. Between Symbolism and Art Nouveau, her works also display a certain mysticism which she conveys through the wise and serious beauty of her sitters. Her mainly feminine subjects are imbued with two aesthetic qualities dear to the artist: tenderness and elegance.
The delicacy of her work was partly triggered by a trip to Florence at the beginning of the century which profoundly affected her style. Thus, all her female figures are marked by a grace derived from Botticelli, and depicted in settings scattered with trees, as a result, among other places, of numerous visits to the Breton Forest of Broceliande, the Concarneau countryside, and Plougastel.
In the second half of the 19th century, as a reaction to the economic upheavals and the social impact provoked by the Industrial Revolution, France saw a resurgence of interest in the Middle Ages. Idealization of this past inspired many artists and naturally placed the sacred at the heart of their work. This mystic vein intensely affected Sonrel’s work and brought it close to that of her contemporaries Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (Lyon, 1824-Paris, 1898) and Edgar Maxence (Nantes, 1871-Labernerie-en-Rets, 1954) in the prevalence of the sacred and their pantheistic vision of Nature.
Our work is an ode to beauty in the simplicity of Nature. In a dreamy landscape with an ivy-covered castle fort in the middle ground, three silhouettes of young women resembling nymphs float through the air above a lake. One seems to lead the other two. Caught as twilight invades the sky with its warm reddish light, everything seems to come straight out of the artist’s imagination. Nature, omnipresent in Sonrel’s work, makes her comparable to her contemporary Alphonse Osbert (1857-1939) in that most of the female figures seem to be meditating muses appearing and strolling through natural landscapes.
In the remarkable predominance of the pious female figure, Sonrel’s works are sometimes related to devotion images, an undeniable souvenir of her bourgeois education largely impacted by Catholicism. These silhouettes symbolize virtue and piety, directly inspired by the reassuring figure of the Virgin Mary. Floating in the air, as is the case here, they are also mystical and transfer the artist’s ideal unreal vision onto a flat surface which is reinforced by the use of watercolor to create an evanescent effect like Italian sfumato. Sonrel plays with pastel coloring: the green, yellow and orange are so pale in places that they accentuate the spiritual dimension in a way that is comparable to some of Maurice Denis’ religious works. The viewer is invited to meditation or contemplation in both artists’ oeuvres.
Our picture was probably done in Brittany, one of the artist’s favorite places. She knew how to capture the marvelous landscapes between Concarneau, Plougastel, Pont-l’Abbé, Bréhat, and even Loctudy where on a card, she described, “the simple, calm, restful life (…) the incomparable sunrises and sunsets, the cloud effects, the unreal and fantastical atmospheres.”
Exhibiting in the Salon of French Artists, as well as that of the Society of French Watercolorists between 1893 and 1939, Elisabeth Sonrel was universally acclaimed. The ultimate Symbolist, 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 the pictorial art of the first half of the 20th century.