Son of René Ménard, an Art Historian and Director of the Gazette des Arts, Emile-René Ménard forged his taste for painting at Barbizon where he spent his vacations in his youth schooled by Millet, Corot, and Daubigny. He inherited his passion for classical Antiquity from his eccentric uncle Louis Ménard, a poet, chemist, and historian of whom Theophile Gautier said one day that he was “an Athenian born two thousand years too late.” The interior decorator Galand, and then the painter Lehmann guided his first steps in the painting profession. In 1880, Menard entered the Julien Academy where he was taught by Bouguereau, Baudry, and Robert-Fleury. He exhibited for the first time in the Salon of 1883; the State’ bought his Departure of the Herd, which marked an auspicious beginning to a smooth obstacle free path.
“This artist’s career was successful,” summarized Jean-Louis Vaudoyer on the occasion of an exhibition devoted to the painter in 1926. “At no time did Menard encounter setbacks, lack of success, or even indifference from critics or the public. As soon as he started painting, it was an enchantment, an enchantment which still continues […] With the tranquil audacity of the strong, his eyes fixed on his inner ideal, smiling, confident, and serious, he continues on his way.”
Menard manifested a peaceful, joyful, vigorous naturalness which the ordeals of life – such as the premature loss of his two children – don’t seem to have affected. The quest for beauty which traverses his art was nourished by his taste as a collector; at home, he assembled Persian tapestries and Medieval stucco from Italy, tapestries, Greek marbles and Romanesque capitals.
Heir to Poussin or Claude Lorrain, sometimes close to Puvis de Chavannes, Emile-René Menard’s work combines close observation of Nature with a search for classical perfection with Arcadian accents. The sketchbooks conserved in the Graphic Arts Department of the Louvre Museum attest to outdoor on-site studies by this enthusiast of light: multiple notes about colors punctuate lines drawn in graphite. Menard then moved readily on to pastels before composing his picture in the studio – each project often gave birth to several variations.
Our Bathers on the Beach are the product of this long work of maturing, nourished by the artist’s voyages as he traversed Italy, Greece, Morocco, and Egypt. In 1921, Menard was at the height of his art. He had been residing for ten years at Varengeville, a village on the Norman coast which had already attracted Turner, Whistler, Corot, and Renoir. Here he depicts two women bathing – one of his favourite subjects – in a sandy cove at the foot of the cliffs illuminated in a twilight glow. Elegant and gracious in their restrained sensuality; these figures combine the incarnation of harmoniously sculpted bodies with the ideal line of Greek Vestals. They integrate seamlessly into this timeless landscape, and thus construct a timeless image void of any moral or historic connotations.
Menard prepared his oils by means of a thin, sometimes mat, oil of turpentine grisaille. The often visible support toned the surface and reinforced the dominant golden ochre. The artist liked to paint changes in light. The late afternoon rosy and orange harmonies make the modeling of the flesh sublime. The strand in the foreground is handled with a lively, almost rushed brushstroke which seems to be a means to bring out the subtle handling of the water and cloudy sky so characteristic of the painter’s style.
As was his custom, Menard reworked this composition several times. The closest version, a less finished oil on pasteboard (Millon Sale, June 19th, 2006, n° 357,) is probably preparatory to our painting. In the Oise Museum (MUDO) and the Pau Museum, can be found Bathers who are in diurnal atmospheres and more meridional landscapes.
Our picture was presented at the Salon des Beaux-Arts in 1921 under the number 799, and then later in Brussels, where Menard exhibited several times after having been elected to the Academy of Fine Arts in 1925.
Catherine GUILLOT, “La quête de l’Antiquité dans l’œuvre d’Émile René Ménard,” Bulletin de la Société d’Histoire de l’Art français, 1999, p. 331 sq.
René Ménard, 1862-1930, exh. cat. Dieppe: Castle-Museum, 1969.
Claire MAUPAS, Vie et œuvre d’Emile-René Ménard, mémoire de maîtrise, Paris IV, 1982.
Peintures et pastels de René Ménard, Preface by André Michel, Paris: Armand Colin, 1923.