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Friday, December 13, 2013

Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret

Wedding at the photographers, 1878-79, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret.
Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret
Artists today take for granted working from photos, even if they don't actually do so in creating their own work. Virtually all portrait artists today use photos to some extent. I've drawn from life hundreds of times but I can recall only once, in a figure painting class in college, having painted a model from life. I'm not sure what artist may have been the first to use a photo as source material in a painting, though I wouldn't be surprised if it was Edouard Manet in the early 1860s--Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon in the Grass). Such a designation is difficult to make because few artists at the time would have admitted to such a practice and in any case, it's unlikely any photos they may have used would have survived. One exception to that was the outstanding French painter, Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret (with a name like that he'd better be outstanding).

An Accident, 1880, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (the second of two versions).
Pascal Dagnan (along with two of his other names) was born in 1852, the son of a Paris tailor. While he was still quite young, his father took off for Brazil and never came back. Consequently, the boy was raised by his grandfather, whose name was Bouveret, hence the addition of the hyphenated fifth name. Though displaying considerable skill at a young age, Pascal Dagnan was forty before he began his formal art education at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts where he came under the tutelage of Alexander Cabanal and Jean-Leon Gerome, two of the major kingpins of Academic art. With such an academic pedigree, one might expect Dagnan-Bouveret to have become one of the thousands of carbon copy academicians the Ecole was famed for turning out like picture postcards. That was not the case. Though Dagnan-Bouveret's style was undeniably Academic, his paintings (for the most part) were not. If anything, one would have to say they more closely resembled the work of the academy's number one thorn in its side (or pain in the butt), Gustave Courbet.

Horses at the Watering Trough,
1884, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret
The photo used for the left third of
Horses at the Watering Trough (left).
In 1872, Dagnan-Bouveret opened a studio in Paris with fellow classmate, Gustave-Claude-Etienne Courtois. His Wedding at the photographers (top) from 1878-79 hints at his working from photos even at such an early date (photography was barely 30 years old at the time). By 1880 Dagnan-Bouveret was winning Salon medals for his work, An Accident (above, center) in 1880 and Horses at the Watering Trough (above, left) in 1885. It is this latter work we find most interesting in that one of the photos he used in painting the horse on the left, still survives (above, right). Photos were a godsend in painting animals.

Day of Forgiveness in Brittany, 1886, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret 
In 1886, Dagnan-Bouveret painted Day of forgiveness in Brittany (above), and it is from this work that we gain the most insight into the artist's use of a single photo in creating his painted image. The photo from which the majority of the painting is rendered is below. Though the standing male figures at left are cropped in the photo and there have been some adjustments in the grouping of the nuns, Dagnan-Bouveret's reliance on photography in achieving his realism goes well beyond that of Academic painting into the realm of the natural Realism of Courbet some twenty years earlier. Could it be that Courbet had a greater influence on this establishment Academician than his instructors?

Source photo for Day of Forgiveness in Brittany (above), 1886
Last Supper, 1895-96, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret
Though flirting with Courbet Realism, Dagnan-Bouvert's work retains the Academic reliance on large scale and religious subjects. His Last Supper (above) solves the persistent problem of so many figures sitting at a single table by utilizing a "U" shape arrangement. Even in painting such a well-worn subject, the artist brings a fresh informality to the scene while establishing Christ's spiritual as well as His physical presence. This piece is interesting when contrasted to the much more intimate Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus (below), from 1896-97, which seems to have a much more ethereal quality. Seldom do we find a single artist having painted both scenes.

Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, 1896-97, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret.
So, was Dagnan-Bouveret an Academicia or a Realist? His fondness for religious and mythological subjects would place him firmly in the Academic tradition. His Lament of Opheus (below left) from early in his career (1876) is as Academic as they come. So too is his Pretty Artist at the Museum (below, right), though (unlike many of his peers) he did choose to paint her fully dressed. The first, however, is ancient, the second, contemporary, even to the point of challenging gender stereotypes. Despite the supposed Academic stranglehold over the Paris Salon, Dagnan-Bouveret's medal-winning works were as common in subject matter as peasant dirt. You could say he was an Academic Realist, but that presents some pretty perplexing contradictions--an artist trained by the likes of Cabanal and Gerome who lived to see the likes of Picasso and Braque before his death in 1929 at the age of seventy-seven.

Pretty Artist at the Museum,
Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret.
Lament of Orpheus, 1876,
Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret.

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