Léon LHERMITTE (Mont-Saint-Père 1844 - Paris 1925)

Wheat, c. 1887

26.7 x 34.3 cm (10 ½ x 13 ½ in.)

Pastel on paper laid down on paper
Signed lower right : “L. Lhermitte”
Inscription recto: “n° 122 (4893)”

Provenance :
• The artist’s studio;
• Private collection until 1982;
• France, Private collection.

• Monique Le Pelley Fonteny, Léon Augustin Lhermitte 1844-1925: catalogue raisonné, Cercle d’art, Paris, 1991, under no. 15, p. 165 : “Les Blés” (Wheat)

[…]There’s surprising masterfulness 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’ Pay, 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 his congratulations in a letter to which the artist responded that the sculptor was one of “the very few whose appreciation is precious to him.” Subsequently identified as one of the major representatives of peasant painting during the Third Republic, Lhermitte was especially committed to illustrating the surroundings of his native village, Mont-Saint-Père. Inspired by Corot, the Barbizon School, and Jules Breton, among others, the artist regularly moved around and drew outdoors a lot in order to sketch landscapes of the Picardy countryside from life in pastels and charcoals.

The Revolution of 1848 rejected the mythological subjects preferred by the Academy. In the 1850s, the peasant population represented 75% of the French population and so naturally occupied a major place in the heart of the arts, especially the main ones of painting and literature.

The summer of 1887 seems to have been particularly propitious for the artist to study wheat fields. In fact, along with the work, The End of the Day (ill. 1), conserved in the Reims Fine Arts Museum, Lhermitte for a second time is singly interested here in a precise study of the fields which he attentively transposes onto paper. Simple in subject matter, but audacious as a symbol, our work illustrates the simple beauty of nature and embodies at the same time the hard labor of millions of French people. The field thus becomes an allegory of Work and Order in opposition to worker life in factories which was considered corrupted by socialism. The Second Empire promoted peasant painting as a genre which illustrated moral order, an image of security and stability far from the upheavals of revolts in the cities.

At the time, Lhermitte became close to Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884), an outdoor painter made famous by Zola in his Complete Works (Vol. 12, pp. 1022-1023, Paris, Cercle du Livre Précieux, 1969), and benefited from his aura. With him, he developed his taste as a plein air painter, by following and studying peasants busy with their daily occupations. The public appreciated the sincerity in his work which did not seek to embellish figures or rework landscapes.

Leon Lhermitte was a painter of reality. Both in his figures and in the nature surrounding them, the artist sought to capture the present instant above all. To do so, he preferred pastel and charcoal, which were fashionable in England, did not require preparation, and made it possible to produce instantly. His direct observation of nature reveals a sensation of immediate reality in our work which is captured through rapid touches. In this small scale work which probably served as a study for larger compositions, the light but imposing masses are balanced and interact in a way as to create a single homogenous unity in which a few thick strokes of pastel define the horizon. Under the crushing heat of the sun at its zenith, the sparkling wheat is reflected like golden sheaves. Thanks to the use of pastel, the artist plays with the grain of the paper and creates an effect of blending which thus gives volume to this messy field trampled in places by wild animals. With Lhermitte, nothing is left to chance: in his works, the sky is usually absent or very reduced and never weighs down the composition.

The artist conserved this work in his studio until his death in 1925. Evidence of the hours spent doing outdoor studies, this small scale work probably served as a study for other compositions in larger formats which had in common a simplicity which celebrated the greatness of manual labor.
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 the decoration for the City Hall and the Sorbonne, Leon Lhermitte was an artist who was highly appreciated in his lifetime and became an emblematic figure of 19th century peasant painting.

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