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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Henri Alphonse Barnoin

Market in Day in Front of the Closed City, Henri Barnoin
I love looking at old photos, whether those from the archives of social history or my own family's considerable contribution to that vast "picture" window into the past. Of course, photos do have their limitations. First, in terms of history, they simply don't exist before about 1840, and for the first couple decades after that they were so few and stiffly formal they might just as well have not existed. The American Civil War in the early 1860s changed that. Photography, though still not without its awkward difficulties, became portable, as wartime photographers of death and destruction perfected the "darkroom on wheels." George Eastman brought Kodak photography to the vast middle-classes and much later added color to this art and science. I don't know who, specifically, invented digital photography, but that too was groundbreaking. However, before all this, before photographs became "photos," which soon became "pictures," which later became "pix," there was the painter. Their pictures were highly developed, in color, highly detailed, quite archival, extremely diverse, and fortunately, quite plentiful. And before photography freed them from the abject bondage of realism, they were an even broader, more important (and much more beautiful) "picture" window into the past. The French painter, Henri Alphonse Barnoin was one of the human cameras who maintained their clarity and focus, but with an interesting twist (noted at the end).

Breton women at the Sainte-Barbe fountain in Le Faouët,
Henri Barnoin
Nothing can replace a good painting in bringing the past to life (at whatever level of society). Historian can record the facts with some degree of human detail, but seldom the ambience. A few outstanding novels have come close to filling in the blanks of the ongoing eras from the past, but both literary efforts have much the same limitations of antique photos--they're stiff, dry, and have relatively little color. Moreover, at they're best, they offer only a brief "snapshot" of the life and times of their protagonists and antagonists. Their greatest asset is also their greatest limitation--they use words. Worse still, they rely on the profit motive of publishers to be read by the masses. Painters are, in effect, self-published, except in rare instances when a printer sees a few bucks to be made in a broader distribution of their most popular images. Henri Alphonse Barnoin was quite prolific in painting his marine, harbor, and market scenes. He was one of the self-published best.

Henri Barnoin seems to have had an affinity for market days.
Born in Paris in 1882, Henri Barnoin's father was an artist as were two of his uncles. Henri studied at the École des Beaux Arts under the academicians, Luc-Olivier Merson, and Émile Dameron, the latter becoming the most significant influence on his style. He introduced Barnoin to Impressionism. The young artist began to paint professionally around 1909 at the age of twenty-seven. Some ten years later he set up his studio in the far northwestern port city of Concarneau where he'd often been summertime visitor. His studio on the "Quai Pénéroff" became a favorite meeting place for fellow artists inspired by the light and lively scenes of fishing boats, village markets, and the sea. In 1926, Barnoin became official Artist to the French Navy (in lieu of an official photographer one might assume).

Fishing Harbor, Concarneau, Brittany, Henri Barnoin

Portrait of the Artist's Brother,
Henri Barnoin

Although Barnoin painted an excellent full-length portrait of his brother (right), he left behind no portrait of himself. There's not even a single, solitary, blurry photo of the man to be found. Among Barnoin's favored subjects were marine, harbor, and coastal scenes, mostly painted in the rich settings of Brittany. This is exem-plified in his painting Fishing Harbor, Concarneau, Brittany (above). As a win-dow into the past, Barnoin's work is especially valuable in that he seems, himself, to have been peering into the past. He died in Paris in 1940; thus Barnoin painted well into the 20th-century, yet not once, in any of his paintings, do we see any evidence of the modern-day world. As seen in his The Market in Quimperlé (below), dating from 1928, and in his Fishing Harbor, Con-carneau (above), there's nothing but sailing ships, no cars, no contemporary dress, not even so much as a utility pole. Henri Alphonse Barnoin was an artist from the past painting his past.

The Market in Quimperlé, ca. 1928, Henri Barnoin
Woodland River at Dusk, Henri Barnoin.
Getting away from it all in the countryside.


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