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Sunday, November 5, 2017

Gaston Bussière

Ophelia, 1900, (watercolor) Gaston Bussiere. Ophelia was
 a favorite subject for the Pre-Raphaelites as well.
It's hard to study, understand, or even enjoy, many works of art without knowing something about the artists, their training, their background, their disposition, the era in which they lived, basically as we would say today, where they are coming from. The same applies, I suppose, in the literary realm to authors. They are both very much alike. Like myself, many artists are, in fact writers. I came to realize recently that British painters and writers do not create alike, any more than they sound alike when they write and speak. Our tablemates at dinner on our recent crossing to England aboard the Queen Mary 2 were a delightful British newlywed couple, both very intelligent, with lively, sparkling personalities. However, at times I could barely understand what they were saying, even though we all spoke English. I found myself reminding them that they should slow down in that for us Americans, English was a second language.
The Revelation, Gaston Bussiere, Brunhilde discovering Sieglinde and Siegmund.

Gaston Bussiere was French. That makes it doubly difficult to "get a handle on" his art or understand "where he was coming from." The Pre-Raphaelites during the latter half of the 19th century, though English, present very much the same quandary. Except for Shakespeare, their work was based on what for many today, and perhaps then as well, is totally unfamiliar literary background. Now, add to that the fact that Gaston Bussiere was something of a French Pre-Raphaelite with an exotic erotic streak running broadly through his paintings and you get some idea why this man is today, something of an enigma.
Joan of Arc, Gaston Bussiere
Bussiere's book illustrations far outnumber his paintings.
Gaston Bussière was born in 1862 and grew to manhood in Cuisery, (east-central) France, not far from the Swiss border. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Lyon before being admitted to the Paris School of Fine Arts. There he studied under Alexandre Cabanel and then Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. In 1884 he won the "Marie Bashkirtseff" prize and, the following year began to exhibit at the Salon. Bussière was greatly influenced by the works of his contemporaries, especially Gustave Moreau. His paintings fell in line with the Symbolist movement. He used French legends and Nordic myths in many of his paintings, which lent themselves to the illustrations he created for many books of his day including The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans by Honoré de Balzac, published in 1897. During this time he also exhibited in the Symbolist Salon de la Rose.
The Death of Preux, Gaston Bussiere
Isolde, 1911,
Gaston Bussiere.
Bussiere was a close friend of Gustave Moreau, but also found inspiration in Hector Berlioz's (The Damnation of Faust), as well as in Shakespeare and Wagner. Bussiere collaborated with the magazine, The Modern World, where he made his debut as a book illustrator (mainly legends). Later he was en-trusted with the complete execution of all illustrated works, by the publisher, Ferroud. He made the illus-trations for Émaux et Camées by Théophile Gautier, Salome by the British writer, Oscar Wilde, and also some works by Flaubert. Almost all preparatory draw-ings for Bee; the Velocipede, as well as the watercolor sketch for the Last Night of Judas and different states of engravings for Emaux and Camee as well as Saint Julien l'Hospitalier. This set includes 104 prints on various subjects and at different stages of print. Some color lithographs testify to the process invented by the artist. These illustrations cover the great diversity of his talent including some drawings of military life, made during the First World War, while the army occupied him completely.
Had he not been French, living and working in Paris during the late 19th-century, the youthfulness of Bussiere's nude teenage models might elsewhere have raised some eyebrows or led to scandal, but there's no indication either played a part in the artist's work.

Inasmuch as a list of Bussiere's literary illustrations mean little to most of us now, it's much easier to study and simply enjoy his three major content areas as to his paintings--dancers, bathers, and figures bedecked with flowers. The one thing these paintings all have in common was Bussiere's love for the beauty of the idealized female nude. His figures (above) are only mildly erotic in the context of bathing (a common moral cover for painting nudes figures at the time). However there's nothing mild or subtle as he applies mythological elements to his female dancers (below).
The Nereids 1927, Gaston Bussiere
Keep in mind most of these works were from the "anything goes" jazz age of Paris in the 1920s. It's not highly technical, but the best word for describing Bussiere's dancers would probably be "hot."
Bussiere was a prolific painter of nudes but also floral motifs. Never were his paintings more beautiful than when he combined the two as seen in his Two Children with Crowns of Flowers (below). What might otherwise be laden with erotic overtones is mostly mitigated by the androgynous qualities of both figures which, though nude, are virtually sexless in their innocence. Yet this ambiguity causes what otherwise might be seen as typical Victorian, syrupy sweetness to take on an air of exotic mystery few other painters ever achieved.

Two Children with Crowns of Flowers,
Gaston Bussiere


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