Covered with honors in his lifetime, and the first painter to have a national funeral, Albert Besnard was forgotten for almost a century before he was rediscovered during the last decade and recovered a fitting place in the history of French Painting. Through maternal connections, he began his initial training under Jean Bremond, a student of Ingres. In 1866, he entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts as a student of Cabanel, and then of Cornu. In 1870, he took up arms in the war against Prussia, an engagement which led to a new level of maturity both personally and in his art. In 1874, without having sought honors, he won the Grand Prix de Rome. During his sojourn in the Eternal City, he met Charlotte Dubray, a sculptor who became his wife and artistic companion for close to fifty years. In following her to England where the couple lived starting in 1879, Besnard discovered Pre-Raphaelite painting. He lightened his palette, and his subjects became allegorical. In London, he became friends with Alphonse Legros and perfected his etching technique.
Back in Paris in 1884, Albert Besnard rapidly made a name for himself in the art of portraiture, by exalting the beauties of the literary, artistic, and political world through his modern taste and warm palette. Public commissions followed, and he excelled as a decorator while applying his innovative talent to City Hall (Hôtel de Ville), the Sorbonne, the Comédie Française, and the Petit Palais. This official recognition was punctuated with responsibilities: Director of the Villa Medici from 1913 to 1921, Besnard was received into the French Academy in 1924, and directed the Ecole des Beaux Arts for ten years. A man of the world, Besnard hosted select elegant society every Sunday. Among his guests could be found Puvis de Chavannes and Ernest Chausson, Paul Helleu, Jacques-Emile Blanche, and a very young Maurice Denis, alongside Deputies and eminent French and foreign art collectors.
Albert Besnard’s multifaceted talent reached particular perfection in his pastels, a technique adapted to the audacity of his search for light and color. Starting in 1885, he exhibited at the Society of French Pastellists over which he presided in the beginning of the following century. His first biographer, Camille Mauclair, summarized his manner as follows:
“Mr. Besnard’s pastels bring us new proof of his completely classical affiliation with the 18th century. He uses a grey or beige pasteboard onto which he rubs cold background colors to establish the main values vaporously, and then creates accents with half-hard pastel pencils, actually drawing with colored pencils, through series of lines and cross-hatching […] This is how several superb studies of nudes or half-draped nudes were executed which are such poems of flesh flecked with vivid reflections, celebrations of fiery hair and milky skin […] with exceptional liveliness and vigor.”
In addition to depicting society women, Albert Bernard enjoyed realizing portraits of studio models whose sensual intimacy seduced collectors. Mauclair continued,
“The female effigy is emblematic and when names are forgotten, remains a work of art which is not diminished by anonymity. It is embellished by the gaze of all those who admire it.”
In his reception discourse, Louis Barthou, who welcomed Besnard into the Academy in 1924, detailed the strong bond that united the painter with his models:
“The model is your collaborator. You ask her right at the beginning, “How do you like yourself?” […] Your psychological investigation, which sometimes reveals her to herself, gives you, who question and observe, the revelation which you need. After having multiplied sketches, drawings, and silhouettes, you thoroughly know the physical and moral person whom you want to paint.”
Our drawing belongs to this group of studio portraits which constitute as many stanzas of the same ode to a woman. In other pastels by Besnard (Woman whose bust is revealed, pastel on paper on canvas, Christie’s Sale, Paris, April 24th, 2018, n°211) this young woman can be recognized with her pearly flesh and Venetian blonde hair whose reddish vermilion straps slip down, thus bringing out the sensual curve of her shoulders.
We are in about 1920 here. With the years, the artist’s palette became more restrained in order to privilege his work on lighting and reflections. The flesh tones are milky on the bust and more enhanced in the face. Lines of pure color emphasize the eyelids, as well as highlight the lips and cheek contours. The artist creates three-dimensionality through the play of colored hatching, which is nuanced on the body, very open on the fabrics, and in muted tones in the background. The woman lowers her gaze, her arms cover her bosom in a modest movement which actually attracts attention. While Besnard’s drawings and etchings feature models who are present and sometimes provocative, his pastels diffuse a more mysterious atmosphere. The poses of the women establish a distance – some are seen from behind, others seem to sink into inexpressible dreams, in line with the image of the Bather or the Portrait of Madame Brulley de La Brunière, conserved at the Orsay Museum, with which our pastel shares this secret gracefulness so characteristic of the painter.
Albert Besnard (1849 – 1934): modernités Belle Époque, exh. cat. Évian, Palais-Lumière, Paris: Petit Palais, Somogy, 2016
Jean ADÉHMAR, Albert Besnard: l’œuvre gravé, peintures, dessins, pastels, exh.cat. Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale, 1949
Camille MAUCLAIR, Albert Besnard – L’homme et l’œuvre, Paris: Delagrave, 1914
Roger Marx, The Painter Albert Besnard, Paris: A. Hennuyer, 1893