Received into the School of Fine Arts (Ecole des Beaux-Arts) in Paris in 1901, Maxence entered the studio of the portraitist and decorator Elie Delaunay, who was also from Nantes and would become a close friend. When Delaunay died, Maxence joined Gustave Moreau’s studio. Here he found an open-minded and competitive atmosphere, as well as constant encouragement from a master who considered him one of his best pupils. Under Moreau’s direction, Maxence pursued a brilliant career at the School of Fine Arts.
His first exhibition at the Salon of French Artists in 1894 met with success. The next year, however, he was eliminated in the first round of the Prix de Rome competition. This defeat had interesting consequences on the artist’s work: the dreamy world which Maxence created became impregnated with his literary knowledge and fantasies of Italy where he would not actually set foot until 1920. Initially influenced by Gustave Moreau, Maxence depicted a mysterious universe imbued with a very personal iconography. He demonstrated his taste for the Middle Ages blended with religious sensitivity, along with a preference for portraits indebted to the work of his first master.
Although Maxence’s œuvre fell within the Symbolist movement, he remained somewhat of an outsider. Having chosen a Parisian career, he nonetheless avoided the limelight of an art world in full foment. Not at all a theorist, Maxence read very little and did not become involved in the development of Modern Art. The painter chose to exhibit mainly in the Salon of French Artists, with the exception of three Rose+Croix Salons (1895-1897). As he was not at all an “academic” artist, his originality is unmistakable. Apollinaire praised his work for its “grand poetic feelings…and contained lyricism that was not at all conventional.” Maxence also maintained close ties with his native city; he developed a bourgeois clientele there for whom he produced numerous portraits.
After the Victory embodies the technical preoccupations of Edgard Maxence. He studied ancient techniques, used tempera, mixed wax into his pigments, and easily incorporated gold leaf. His drawings are equally the product of a complex understanding of his media. As in our work, he mixed bodycolour and pastel, and even India ink, over lines already drawn in black chalk. Magnificently executed, our drawing reverberates with mystery, even down to the very substance with which it is created in a Symbolist application of pastel which is softer and more suggestive than oil.
Maxence was first and foremost a portraitist, but here he does not seem to give much importance to the identity of his sitter. Androgynous, with his eyelids lowered, the figure wears an enigmatic expression which is not clarified by the title. Such characteristics bring Maxence close to the Pre-Raphaelites. The sitter’s clothing and the background against which he is inscribed unfurl a shimmering expanse of color which forms a striking contrast to his self-absorbed air.
Our work is comparable to The Soul of the Forest (L’Âme de la forêt, (Nantes, Museum of Fine Arts) a composition assembling faces — a collection of portraits – midst an enigmatic atmosphere. The work is part of a small series on “the soul.” In this highly symbolic context, the soul is not only understood in its spiritual sense, it also expresses the essence of a person. From this perspective, our portrait – as in the series of “souls” – does not depict a person, but represents a being and the mystery which surrounds it.
The surprising face of this sitter is seen in The Sacred Reading (La Lecture sacrée, also called The Meditation, Sotheby’s sale, London, June 24th, 1987). The figure here has a halo and wings; its androgynous character classes it among the angels. Perhaps our work also represents a sort of angel whose wings are highlighted with precious peacock motifs.
Our pastel is brilliant evidence of the work of this man who had an « illuminator’s temperament, » to employ the terms used by critic Marc Elder to describe Maxence:
“I mean that the spirit of the old patient artists in days of yore, who decorated the Holy Scriptures and Hours, has flowered anew in his soul. He is descended from those perfect poets who interlaced colored lights in the margins of parchment. Like them, he possesses the conscience, the moral rectitude of his means, a sense of elegant sinuosity, as well as fastidious harmonies of distinction and charm.”
Autour des symbolistes et des Nabis du musée : les peintres du rêve en Bretagne, exhibition catalogue, Brest, Fine Arts Museum, October 27, 2006
J.D. JUMEAU-LAFOND, Musée d’Ixelles, Les peintres de l’âme : le symbolisme idéaliste en France, Antwerp: Pandora, 1999
Le mystère et l’éclat : pastels du Musée d’Orsay, exhibition catalogue, Paris : RMN 2008