With her back comfortably supported by couch cushions while holding a voluminous work on her lap, a young woman wearing simple indoor attire is totally absorbed in her reading. In front of her, on an Empire style mahogany veneer pedestal table, her cup of tea is getting cold on a lacquer tray. The interior is cushy and pleasant with landscapes as well as a barometer on the wall. Time is suspended and one catches oneself almost dreaming with the sitter of an epoch when hours seemed to fly at a more leisurely pace.
Such intimatist scenes constitute an important part of René-Xavier Prinet’s œuvre, an unclassifiable painter with a poetic realism and deliberately Impressionist touch. Son of a Parisian magistrate from the Franche-Comté, the artist received a classic education at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris under Gérôme. From his master’s teaching, he especially retained the importance of preparatory studies and the practice of painting from models, in the studio and not on site. He rapidly distanced himself from the historical and religious subjects which had brought glory to Gérôme, in favor of contemporary themes, as he especially identified with the new painting of Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. This can be seen in the lively freedom of the brushstroke, more generous application of pigment, audacious harmony of the colors, more incisive light, more daring compositions, and quest for attention. Removed from any social criticism his style at the same time brings out more sensitivity, admiring contemplation, and balance in the compositions. At the twilight of the 19th century, with René Ménard, André Dauchez, and Lucien Simon, he was part of a group of friends known as the « Black Band » who openly took position against the new pictorial tendancies. The "Band" trimphed at the World’s Fair of 1900 with many awards: Prinet exhibited six pictures and received a gold medal and the Legion of Honor.
The same year, the "New Society of Painters and Sculptors," organized under the direction of Gabriel Mourey, began exhibiting at Georges Petit Gallery and continued until 1914. In addition to the members of the "Black Band," works by such Frenchmen as Auguste Rodin, Albert Besnard, Henri Le Sidaner, Lucien Simon, Antoine Bourdelle, and such foreigners as Meunier, Whistler, Burne-Jones, Boldini, and Menzel could be seen. Prinet himself defined the artists’ motivations:
"its members had no intentions of creating a revolution. Without it being clearly stated, the purpose of this society was to maintain the tradition of Manet, Degas, Monet, and all the artists who had contributed to giving so much brilliance to French art during the second half of the 19th century."
Nonetheless, the term "intimism" rapidly dominated and brought these painters and sculptors together. In his work, Les Arts plastiques : la Troisième République de 1870 à nos jours (The Visual Arts : The Third Republic of 1870 to Today), which appeared in 1931, Jacques-Emile Blanche recalled how successful these themes were with the audience :
"Breakfast, an evening around the lamp, a child’s lesson […] which Le Sidaner or René-Xavier Prinet rendered pleasant or moving for visitors at the Georges Petit Gallery…" (pp. 116-117)
During this period, the palette became lighter, forms more distinct under a bright outdoor light whose shadows turned transparent and silvery. The artist drew his subjects from daily surroundings, the family properties in Franche-Comté, Bourbonne-les-Bains, or Cabourg, and at home in Clos Saint-Jean, Paris. Our little canvas belongs to just that period in Prinet’s art and features Jeanne, the painter’s wife. In fact, one recognizes the sitter in a series of intimate pictures realized between 1903 and 1909, including, Awakening or The Dining Room in Cabourg, as well as in a large drawing depicting Jeanne Prinet Reading. In the latter, the young woman has the same pensive pose and striped indoor dress, as well as an identical couch, while holding an equally thick book book which turns out to be illustrated.
In our canvas, as is often the case, Prinet uses a colored preparation to determine the overall tonality. The bluish beige dominant coloring is warmed by carmine red, brown, pale yellow, and delicate pink. The distinction of the shades used contributed to creating a dreamy melancholy atmosphere which envelopes the figure with a certain mystery. The reduced format and particularly free thick brushstrokes indicate that this is a study or sketch from among those the artist conserved in his studio cupboard. He picked up the habit of recording his observations and ideas this way from Gérôme. He often returned to these sketches when painting a picture and wishing to remember an impression. Our work would have inspired Reading, a medium-sized oil painting exhibited at the Georges Petit Gallery in 1914 (no. 65) and acquired the same year by the State (Roubaix, André Diligent Museum of Art and Industry, inv. Dépôt 4822).
General Literature (Unpublished Work)
Catherine GENDRE, Prinet, peintre du temps retrouvé, Paris, Somogy, 2018.
Christophe COUSIN, Pauline GRISEL, Marguerite PRINET, R. X. Prinet. 1861/1946, exh. cat. Belfort, Vesoul, Paris, 1986.