The regular readers of the blog may find this portrait familiar, resembling what they’ve seen already. And they will be right – this is a portrait by Walter/ Richard Sickert, the painter I’ve written about very recently. The style of early Sickert is very recognisable.
But in the context of this posting it’s more important to say not who painted the picture, but who is painted on it; and it is Jacques-Émile Blanche, also a painter, but the French one.
Interestingly, Blanche lived almost in the same time as Sickert – he was born in 1861, just a year earlier than Sickert, and he died in the same 1942; but, oh dear, how different had been their lives, and their “trajectories”, too!
By the way, the portrait of Blnache by Sickert is less known than the other portrait , painted by his friend and a mentor, John Sargent:
There will be a lot of portraits in this posting (there will be many mirrors too, although a bit later). But speaking of portraits, and of Blanche, it makes sense to start with his own phrase he wrote in 1911:
“D’ici cinquante ans, on verra dans les musées les portraits que j’aurai peints, de tant de littérateurs, mes amis; et de l’auteur de ces portraits, il n’y pas aura trace dans aucun livre de son époque. Je suis peut-être le seul artiste de mon âge, dont il n’existe pas la moindre monographie et que le Larousse ignore.”
“Fifty years from now, the portraits of many writers and artists will be hanging in the museums; yet not single book will be written about their author. I am perhaps the only artist of my age who does not have a biography written about him, and who is ignored by Larousse [now known as the dictionary, but also a large encyclopaedia] ”
Like all predictions, this also tuned to be wrong; that is, it was right in the part “will be hanging in museums,” but wrong about biographies – the very first monograph about Blanche was written not in fifty, but in ninety (90!) years after these words had been written. Since the publication in 2001 of this first book about the artist two more volumes, one about the Normandia period, and one large catalog of his exhibition in Rouen.
If one would venture to learn about Jacques-Émile Blanche using Google Image Search, he or she would get the results more or less similar to the ones below (subject to the browser’s cookies):
Indeed, Blanche was primarily a portraitist. Let’s have a look at a few of his portraits first.
This one is of Sickert, painted by Blanche in 1898:
Here’s another one, painted many years later, in 1935, and in many respects mimicking (or mocking) the manner of Sickert himself:
Both the portrait above and the one below have mirrors (in both cases these are the mantlepiece mirrors). But in general we rarely see mirrors in the Blanche’s portraits – in fact, these two are the only ones I found so far, and in this case they could be also seen as references to the mirrors of Sickert.
The next portrait also relates to the British painter, the portrait is of his mother, Eleanor Louisa Moravia Sickert (nee Henry):
There will be no mirrors for a while, but there will be a lot of interesting and famous people instead. For example, below is portrait of Jean-Louis Forain (1908), another French painter, whose mirrors I also planning to write about:
Portrait Edgar Degas (1903), already half-blind:
I happen to have a large reproduction, and I can show how interesting was the brushwork of Blanche:
Blanche was relatively close friend of Degas, especially in his later years. The photo below is from 1895 (and it doesn’t have mirrors, and so I didn’t show it when writing about the photographic period of Degas. Blanche stands behind Degas, and sitting opposite is another friend of them, Jules Taschereau.
Aubrey Beardsley (1895)
Charles Conder (1904), another interesting artist who is considered “the first impressionist of Australia”.
But Blanche was making not only the portraits of other artists – below is a Marcel Proust (1892), his close friend since childhood. Today it is one of the most known depiction of the French writer:
later Blanche made another portrait of Proust (1904):
It’s less know, but it happens to be my mental image of Proust, the portrait was in one of the first books by Proust I read (À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs) (approximately one hundred million years ago).
Henry James (1908) – I know he’s a Big Name among writers, but to my regret I read nothing of him.
Again, I have a reproduction of larger size, and you can see the manner of painting here too – but a completely different one compared to the portrait of Degas:
Thomas Hardy (1906) – a very similar story, I remember starting to read Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but also remember dropping it when I’ve learnt that it’s actually her.
Francis Poictevin (1887) – apparently, a well-known writer in France in the late 19th century:
Jean Cocteau (1913) – a poet, but better known as an omnipresent figure in all stories about the bohemian Paris of the 1920s-30s.
André Gide (1912) – mm, same stuff:
James Joyce (1935) whose Ulysses we all tried to finish, and not once.
Angel-looking Percy Grainger (1906), a composer:
And this is Vaslav Nijinsky (1910):, who performed during the Diaghilev’s seasons in Paris:
Blanche made a few portraits of the Diaghilev’s troop, including one of Tamara Karsavina, the prima ballerina and a partner of Sergei Diaghilev.
I also found the portrait of young Igor Stravinsky (1915), Russian, then French composer:
Here a question is begging to be asked, of how the artist managed to paint the portraits of all these famous people? Dozens, if not hundreds? A small introduction is due.
His father was a renowned neurologist – and what is the connection, one may wonder? – but at that time “treating the nerves” was a very popular exercise the wealthy elite (similar to psychoanalysis some years later), and many famous artists and writers were queueing to the Blanche’s father’s clinic. Although never very rich, young Jacques-Émile was far from being poor either, in fact he was hardly in need to make income during his life and could always afford to do what he liked, and in the way he did like it.
He did not receive any formal training in painting, except for a few lessons with Henri Gervex, and could be seen as a classical example of a self-taught master. The critics today are pointing to the influence of Manet, or Tissot, or Sargent, but in reality Blanche always created his works in his own special manner, surely borrowing the techniques from different master, especially in the beginning, but eventually developing his own, and very diverse repertoire.
Blanche happened to live all his life in the very center of artistic life of Paris and London, and managed to create a visual chronicle of its developments, from the first impressionists to the last Dada artists. He was relatively popular during his life and had a stable clientele, but soon after his death of his works earned the reputation of ‘unoriginal’. I believe we will see a ‘rediscovery’ of his art in the near future, and his name will become as famous as the same Sargent and other more popular art-names of these times.
Speaking about portraits, those that I have shown above happened to be all men, but Blanche also painted a lot of women, both known dames, and unknown models.
Portrait of a baroness in the Louis XVI costume
Portrait of senora Eugenia Huici De Errazuriz
His portraits of women are much more intricate, one brushstroke more and we would get the look-alikes of Giovanni Boldini:
I will write a bit more about the two portraits above, and here just note that Blanche often used a similar approach of carnivalization, with the models dressed in the costumes of the Louis XVI’s or the Doge of Venice’s courts.
We have a photo of one of his sessions (not sure how carnavalized it was at the end):
He also painted a lot of children’s portraits – I will show below just a couple:
Finally, it should be said that he also painted many non-portraits, too, there is a large amount of the flowers, and still-lifes, city scenes and landscapes; yet having said that, it is still his portraits that he was – and most probably will be – most famous with.
Now, mirrors. What all this has to do with the mirrors?
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In fact, there is only one series of Blanche’s works that has anything to do with mirrors, but what an interesting, beautiful – and mysterious – series it is!
Perhaps as a preface to this series I need to show one very early – and very revealing! – portrait:
It is sometimes referred simply as ‘The Girl in the Mirror‘ (Fillette au mirior), and sometimes a Psyché; depicted here is some Lucie Esnault, a daughter of his friends.
This is a fairly early work, Blanche painted it in 1889, shortly after he began painting his first works – which makes even more interesting the method he used to depict the mirror here (or rather an entire scene).
We see that in the mirror the girl’s image is very blurry and diffused, in contrast to the relatively sharp figure and her face in the foreground:
This is not how we, people, see the world – our eyes are focused very quickly on the objects at different distances. Despite the face that the air between our eyes and these objects does change the shape and the color of them, our brain manage to compensate it in a real time. That’s why the works of the old masters depict both foreground and background as equally sharp – they painted their works in the same same they saw the world.
But smartness is a rare thing in the world, and even the best cameras start ‘lying “, and show sharply only the objects at the same distance from the lens (in the focus) – unless one makes special efforts to manage the DoF, Depth of Field (but then there is a trade off with shutter speed, meaning that you would need to shoot relatively stable objects). Not surprisingly, when photography was invented, and some of the painters began to use it, their pictures also began to show these visual effect (I wrote about these things in my piece about Breitner, for example).
I do not know if Blanche used a camera when creating his works; probably not (the photograph of one of his sessions above shows that he painted his works in quite a classical manner). Another explanation is that the mirrors were still of perfect quality, and the reflections did get blurrier when looked from a distance. In any case, the method of depicting the mirrors in this way was apparently very successful, and later Blanche almost always used it.
Few more works with the mirrors:
Desiree Manfred face à son miroir (1914)
Desiree Manfred dort près du miroir (1912)
Desiree Manfred touche le miroir (1913)
All the reproductions I have are not of very good quality, but nevertheless they all present the same motive, of a very blurry, drowsy state (the girl on a second painting is literally asleep). My poor copies do not allow to say it with certainty, but I think that the mirrors, and they they are depicted, do play an important in creating a very characteristic atmosphere in these paintings.
I also believe that Blanche should have been familiar with the Alice in Wonderland (and more importantly, with Through the Looking-Glass – the latter was published in London in 1871 and became famous very quickly). I can’t confirm it now, but I suspect that this motive, of a sleeping girl near a mirror, could have been inspired by the Carroll’s book.
There is a very interesting work, of another artist, Maurice Lobre, who was a friend of Blanche:
It is called Cabinet de Toilette de Jacques-Émile Blanche (1888); this is not a studio in a full sense, but also not very far from it (and I guess, in a literate sense, too). This painting is full of mirrors (I see two, if not three ones!); and it has a young girl, too – though not so very sleepy.
The painting was created long before that ‘sleepy mirrors series’ (it was painted even before the very first Psyche by Blanche), but still some bells are being already rang. This is an especially telling work in the context of the next developments.
I didn’t know that, but apparently there is a story behind all these girls & mirror; it was, in fact, one and the same girl, some Désirée Manfred. Later in his life Blanche wrote a book about his models (Mes modèles), and this is how he describes the first appearance of the most beloved of his models in his life:
“Un soir de décembre, il neigeait, j’étais chez moi méditant et m’apercevant que je n’aurais rien à exposer ‘pour la vente’… quand on sonna à ma porte. Une femme étrange, voilée, venait avec une enfant me proposer un modèle tel que je n’en trouverais un nulle part. On savait que j’étais en peine et que je demandais des fillettes. La pourvoyeuse fit tomber le capuchon couvert de flocons, puis la mante où s’enveloppait la petite. Je fus saisi. Cette petite n’avait point d’âge : corps menu, mais formé, un visage admirable, des yeux verts qui me rappelaient les maîtresse de Debussy ; un je ne sais quoi d’indécis, de morbide qui, d’abord, me fit répondre que je n’avais pas besoin de modèle. Mais la mère ne l’entendait pas ainsi ; elle fut insistante, si menaçante, que de guerre las [sic], je donnai rendez-vous à “Daisy” et à sa terrible mère.“
“One evening in December, it was snowing, I was at home meditating that I have nothing to put ‘for sale’ … the bell rang at my door. A strange woman, veiled, offered me her child as model, saying that I won’t find anyone like her anywhere. Looks like she knew I was in trouble and I need the girl models. The purveyor knocked off a cap covered with snowflakes, and I saw a young girl. I was seized. That little had no age, a tiny but already formed body, an admirable face, green eyes that reminded me of the mistress of Debussy; I don’t quite know what morbid creature in me told at at first that I did not need a model. But the mother did not hear it, and kept insisting, even threatening me [sic!], so I made an appointments with “Daisy” and her terrible mother.”
The diaries and essays by Blanche are traditionally accused in multiple inaccuracies, mixing facts with wishful thinking, and so on, but apparently this memory, his instantaneous ‘seizure’ by the young Desiree has some ground in reality. Blanche made more than 50 portraits of Desire, painted during more than a decade, and he was saying many times that the presence of Desire ‘charms’ him = sa présence m’enchantait.
Many of her portraits didn’t survive (or at least not known, perhaps kept in private collections); it is also known that some of the portraits of Desire has been subsequently destroyed by Blanche himself.
And as we saw already, Desire is posing near the mirrors; below are more examples.
The latest “mirror portrait” of Desiree is dated by 1918 – she is not a girl here, but a young woman (and we also see a different mirror here).
Even in his last ‘mirror work’ Blanche used the same method as in the very one first, adding a certain blur to the mirror refelction, compared to the sharp ‘real world’:
Desiree continued to sit for Blanche later, and at some point even worked as his secretary. Quite often she posed indifferent historic costumes – I’ve shown two of such portraits earlier, and below is yet another one, where she is depicted as the ‘Spanish traveler’:
In one of his memoirs Blanche writes that he was constantly inventing new and more extravagant outfits and roles for Desiree – one day she had to portray a melancholic doll from a puppet theater, next one – a sarcastic jester (de drôlerie?) Blanche especially liked the effect of ‘chimera’ created in her portraits, when the body belonged to a young woman, when the head, and the face was of a little girl; a French hentai in the beginning of the 19th century.
According to some hints and ‘slips of the tongue’, we can suggest that Desire herself didn’t particularly enjoy these roles – apparently, she was a deeply introvert person, she studied music and would like to follow this career. Yet her mother insisted on these sessions because of money (she is often portrayed as a sort of Irina Ionesco who purportedly exploited the sexual appeal of her young daughter Eve).
This is all that I managed to find so afar; I’d love to have more ‘facts & figures’ and at least to read some of the diaries by Blanche (to my knowledge, none of them translated to English yet). Well, let’s wait for the next book about Blanche and his relationship with his favorite models.
PS: The same story, but now in the format of slideshow: Hentai français, or (carte) Blanche with the mirrors