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Saturday, July 5, 2014

Jean-Jacques Henner

La liseuse, 1880-90, Jean-Jacques Henner. Don't try to focus the image, it's sfumato.
Jean-Jacques Henner Self-portrait,
1877.Very little sfumato here.
Many years ago, as a rank amateur painter, I was told by another artist that there should be no "hard" edges in painting. Being the naive beginner I was at the time, I believed everything any older artist proclaimed. Of course, like all absolutes, especially those involving art, that piece of sage advice, centering on the word "should," was of questionable validity, at best. Later, in college, I learned the meaning of the terms, "sfumato" and "chiaroscuro." Both have to do with the dictum imposed upon painting by my early "influence," and particularly the painting style of the French academic, Jean-Jacques Henner.
Henner in his "atelier" as studios were
called in his time
Sfumato has to do with soft edges. I think it derives from the Italian word for smoke--fumo. As Henner and others, both French and Italian, have employed the style, it creates a sweet, gentle, nostalgic quality to their painted ladies. Henner used it in painting men too. Sfumato also tends to minimize anatomical details which may, in fact, be one of its primary painters' purposes (especially in painting men). Painted nudes during the Victorian era (Henner was born in 1829) was a socially acceptable pastime for artists, though just barely (pardon the pun). Academic nudes such as Henner's are sometimes referred to as "sanitized," (though many, painted as commissioned by wealthy male patrons, were ofte quite un-sanitary). In any case, sfumato was a handy instrument in the artist's toolbox for such purposes.
One of his last paintings before his death in 1905, The Head of Christ in the Tomb,
1902, Jean-Jacques Henner. Christ was a redhead?
Chiaroscuro was a much broader tool and in painting the human figure. Very little in the way of realism could have been achieved without it. Cubism often came to disregarded it completely. The term referrs to the soft, gradual changes of tones and values as rounded flesh reflects light, giving way to shadow. Seeing the two terms put to use on the same canvas, one may start adjusting spectacles to make sure they're focusing properly. Virtually all of Henner's nudes, and many of his portraits, have me doing that.

The hard-edged Pre-Raphaelite Dreamers, 1870, Albert Joseph Moore.
Note the chiaroscuro, here and in Henner's crucifixion (below).
Christ on the Cross, 1890, Jean-Jacques Henner
Although Jean-Jacques Henner was not the only artist during the Victorian era addicted to sfumato, he was, fortunately, one of only a few. The English hated it. The Pre-Raphaelites such as Albert Joseph Moore and his Dreamers (above) from 1870, rebelled against the effect, glorifying the hard, precise edge in painting their Ophelias, Proserpines, Dianas, and Virgin Marys. Henner minimized details (anatomical or otherwise) while the English accentuated them, though they (and English society) were often more prudish in toying with nude figures. Slightly later, the Impressionists nudes employed sfumto, but not in the dark, bituminous romanticism of academicists such as Henner.
Christ Entombed, 1879, Jean-Jacques Henner (he did several versions).
Adam and Eve Discovering the Corpse
of Abel, 1858, jean-Jacques Henner.
Like other French and Italian artists of his ilk, Henner latched on to virtually any "excuse" to employ nude figures in a respectable, often biblical context. His Adam and Eve Discovering the Corpse of Abel (left ) is a quite unique example. I know of no other artist who ever painted such a scene. That's alright, Henner painted at least two other versions himself (some with more sfumato than others). Henner's broad array of crucifixions, entombments (above), and pietas also allowed him to paint respectable male nudes, though his painting of a very elderly, also very naked, Saint Jerome (bottom), dating from 1881, may have been pushing even that envelope too far. A bit more sfumato here would have been nice.
Saint Jerome, 1881, Jean-Jacques Henner.
Never sfumato around when you need it.



  1. Hi Jim I found something of JJ HENNER at an action curios about it it's like on cardboard like an old photo and there is another beautiful picture on the back of a young girl looking up and away from sheet music

  2. If you could get decent photos of your finds, I'd love you to e-mail it to me. I'd like to see what you got and hear if you have it appraised. Being painted on cardboard it could be early student work which can sometimes be surprisingly valuable. Archival? Well, that's another matter. :-) Thanks for your comment.