• France, Private Collection
Emile- Réné Ménard grew up in a family of artists which determined his destiny. From his father, René Ménard, painter, Art Historian, Editor in Chief of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, and Professor at the National School of Decorative Arts, he acquired an admiration for the Barbizon School. His uncle Louis, a Parnassian Philosopher close to Leconte de Lisle, transmitted his interest for Antiquity to him. Ménard studied under the decorator Galand, and then with Paul Baudry and Adlophe Bouguereau at the School of Fine Arts, and finally at the Julian Academy with Henri Lehmann. In 1883, he exhibited his first works at the Salon and then joined the National Society for Fine Arts where he exhibited until 1923. From direct citation of Biblical or ancient references, the painter’s art evolved to the depiction of a timeless universe where lyric pastoral themes evoke an ideal ancient Age.
The Black Band
Ménard belonged to the “Black Band,” a small group of artists without any real aesthetic unity who appeared at the World’s Fair of 1900 and whose works were regularly hung at the Georges Petit Gallery. As opposed to the Impressionist approach, the Black Band, who claimed descent from Courbet, remained attached to classicism. Ménard cut a singular figure among them, independent of social preoccupations, while painting in a lighter interior range of colors. Close to the Symbolist trend, he exhibited at the Munich Secession and Libre Esthétique in Brussels, as well as several times in the United States. His work was equally well received in France, and the State commissioned several decorative projects from him – at the Sorbonne (1906) and the Law School (1909).
Our picture illustrates the different qualities which characterize Ménard’s painting. The bather in a landscape is a recurring theme in his work: “He loved immediately what he would always love,” wrote Achille Segard in the catalogue for one of his exhibitions. A perfectionist, Ménard ceaselessly returned to the same motifs which were always recomposed. Sometimes in oil, sometimes in pastel, balance between figure and landscape is insatiably being sought. In the paintings which are closest to our work, the scene seems to be the same, but the landscape and color harmonies vary. In others, the bather is seen from behind (Nymph at Twilight, private collection) or entering the water (Bather near the Trees, private collection).
Our painting evokes the idea of an ideal world in luminous hues which the brushstroke makes vibrate. In it, Ménard blends both Poussin’s influence and that of his numerous travels – to Italy, Greece, and the Near East. His taste for Parnassian aesthetics and and the monumentality of his grand decorative schemes can be seen here in the tradition of Puvis de Chavannes.
The artist does not seek to describe: this scene is as much at Léoube or at Estagnol (on the Côte d’Azur, near Lavandou), as it could be in a calm meditative ancient Utopian place. The young woman’s pose is a reminder of it, as she offers herself for view but turns her head away so as to ignore exterior gazes. The critic Gustave Soulier who prefaced an exhibition of Ménard in 1894 seems to have summarized our work when he wrote that here the painter reveals one of “these visions of pacified nature bathed in dawn or twilight where the soul seems to replunge into the candor of dawns and absorbs the balm which flows from golden evenings.”
General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Le mystère et l’éclat. Pastels du Musée d’Orsay, exh. cat, Paris, RMN, 2008.
Autour des Symbolistes et des Nabis du Musée : les peintres du rêve en Bretagne, exhibition catalogue, Brest, Museum of Fine Arts, 2006.
J.-D. JUMEAU-LAFOND, Les peintres de l’âme, le Symbolisme idéalisme en France, SDZ Pandora, 1999, pp. 100-104.
C. 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.
A. MICHEL, Peintures et pastels de Pierre Ménard, Paris, Armand Colin, 1923.
V. CHUIMER, "René Ménard ou la mélancolie d’automne et de ruines," Gazette de l’Hôtel Drouot, no 43, November 2002.