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Sunday, October 2, 2016

Jean Beraud

Symphony in Red and Gold, 1894, Jean Beraud. It's a gorgeous
piece of work, but what does it mean? How does it fit into art history?
Those who study, write, and archive the history of art tend to have a streak of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I guess, in their case, it's probably a valuable personality trait in that it more or less "goes with the territory." They become OCD in becoming art historians, and they wouldn't be very good ones if they didn't. Having a place for everything and everything in its place enables them to minutely classify art and artist, suggesting ways for the rest of us to approach, study, and remember art history. However, what must drive such scholars crazy is when they encounter an artist who "straddles the fence," so to speak--who paints in more than one style, often even during the same period of his or her lifetime. When this occurs, critics can either pound a square peg in a round hole, or, as more often happens, simply toss the peg aside as to inconsequential to contend with. That's largely what happened to the Russian-born painter, Jean Beraud.
Entrance to the Exposition Universelle, 1889, Jean Beraud,
back when the Eiffel Tower was brand new.
Edouard Manet was a good friend of Beraud's. And, had Manet not been such an important kingpin in the transition from the stale monotony of Academicism to the vibrant freshness of Impressionism, he would likely have suffered the same fate as Beraud. But Manet was too big to ignore. Beraud, on the other hand, was merely a transplanted Russian who, in some ways, was more "French" than Manet, and perhaps a little too popular with the French bourgeois for the critics' tastes. He was popular with the bourgeois (middle class) because he painted the middle-class and their daily lives. Moreover, beyond that, during much of his career Beraud painted them with Academic Realism utilizing a loose, somewhat Impressionist style. His Entrance to the Exposition Universelle (above), from 1889 illustrates what I mean. How the hell do you classify someone like that?

A law student turned artist.
Jean Beraud (pronounced ber-ROW) was born in Saint Petersburg in 1848. His father was a sculptor working on the decoration of St. Isaac's Cathedral at the time. Beraud's father died around 1865. His mother then moved the family back to Paris. The younger Beraud took up the study of law, at least until the tragic occupation of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. After the war, Beraud became a student of Léon Bonnat. He first exhibited paintings at the Salon in 1872 though nobody much noticed his work until 1876, when he exhibited his On the Way Back from the Funeral. He also exhibited with the Society of French Watercolorists at Paris' 1889 World's Fair.

Mary Magdalene in the house of Simon the Pharisee, 1891, Jean Beraud
Beraud's paintings often included truth-based humor and mockery of late 19th-century Parisian life, along with frequent appearances of biblical characters in then contemporary situations (another reason critics were none too fond of his work). Paintings such as Mary Magdalene in the House of the Pharisees (above) aroused controversy when exhibited, because of these themes. The painting is staunchly Academic in style and technically quite good (no criticism there). Beraud derived his subject from an event in Luke 7:36-50, but moved it into the then-modern world. Only the figure of Jesus is clothed in timeless biblical attire. All the others, including the startled maid at far right, are in modern dress. The anachronistic painting was controversial because people suspected that Beraud was trying to make them uncomfortable by confronting them with their own failings and their own hypocrisy. They were right about that. Many of the well-heeled men in the painting would have had mistresses. Beraud presented them with the reality of raw human suffering, which they did not particularly like.

Beraud found the spectacle of French ladies battling the elements
on the streets of Paris in their confining, turn-of-the-century
finery both fascinating and amusing.
Beraud's painting style gradually shifted from Academicism towards Impressionism, though at times he was painting in both styles, even in the same painting. However, while the major Impressionists fled the chaos of Paris to paint landscapes of the surrounding areas, Beraud, like his friends Édouard Manet, and Degas chose to depicted the urban life. Impressionism was not born in Paris but in the suburbs, along the Normandy coast, and the rural Barbizon woodlands. Only in later years, as it matured and painters began to recognize the limitations of both the style and content of their early work did they begin to discover the broad, colorful boulevards and raunchy nightlife of Paris. As an overview of Beraud's work indicates, the Russian-born Frenchman no one quite knew how to pigeonhole, was way ahead of them. Jean Beraud never married and had no children. He died in Paris in 1935 at the age of eighty-seven.

Though they worked at roughly the same time, and probably knew each
other, the nightlife depicted by Beraud was a far cry from the seedy
immorality depicted (and enjoyed) by fellow artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.
This photo-montage centered on Beraud's The Boulevard des Capucines and the Vaudeville Theatre, from 1889, presents a stark contrast to the streets of Paris now, as compared to what Beraud painted.
Beraud's Portrait of a Dandy would
suggest that the fashion attire of the
well-dressed Frenchman during the
so-called "la belle époque" has
changed as much, or more,
than the streets of Paris.


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