Émile Bernard (April 28, 1868 – April 16, 1941) is best known as a Post-Impressionist painter who maintained close relations to Van Gogh and Gauguin, and, at a later time, to Cézanne.
Most of his notable work was accomplished at a young age, in the years 1886 through 1897. Later Bernard returned to a more or less academic practice, with his own trinity - God, Wagner, Titian - and Tintoretto as an intermediate. Less known is Bernard's literary work, comprising plays, poetry, and art critical as well as art historical statements that contain first hand information on the crucial period of modern art to which Bernard had contributed.
Emile Bernard was born in Lille, France in 1868 to parents who accepted his artistic talent. However, in his younger years his sister was sick and Emile was unable to receive much attention. As a result he stayed with his grandmother, who owned a laundry in France. She employed over twenty people and was one of the greatest supporters of his art. At a young age, she even built him a wooden studio so that he could be in private when creating. He soon moved to Paris and attended the College Sainte-Barbe.
He began his studies at the École des Arts Décoratifs, befriending fellow artists Louis Anquetin and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. He joined the Atelier Cormon in Paris in 1884 where he experimented with impressionism and pointillism. After being suspended from the École des Beaux-Arts for “showing expressive tendencies in his paintings”, he toured Brittany on foot, where he was enamored by the tradition and landscape.
In August of 1886, Bernard met Gauguin in Pont-Aven. In this brief meeting, they exchanged little about art, but looked forward to meeting again. Bernard said, looking back on that time, that “my own talent was already fully developed.” He believed that his style may have played a part in the development of Gauguin’s mature style.
Bernard spent September of 1887 at the coast, where he painted La Grandmere, a portrait of his grandmother. He continued talking with other painters and started saying good things about Gauguin. Bernard went back to Paris, met with Van Gogh, who as we already stated was impressed by his work, found a restaurant to show the work along side Van Gogh, Anquetin, and Lautrec’s work at the Avenue Clichy. Van Gogh, called group the School of Petit-Boulevard.
One year later, Bernard set out for Pont-Aven by foot and saw Gauguin. Their friendship and artistic relationship grew strong quickly. By this time Bernard had developed many theories about his artwork and what he wanted it to be. He stated that he had “a desire to [find] an art that would be of the most extreme simplicity and that would be accessible to all, so as not to practice its individuality, but collectively…” Gauguin was impressed by Bernard’s ability to verbalize his ideas.
1888 was a seminal year in the history of Modern art. From October 23 till December 23 Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh worked together in Arles. Gauguin had brought his new style from Pont-Aven exemplified in "Vision of the Sermon" , a powerful work of visual symbolism of which he had already sent a sketch to Van Gogh in September.
In addition Gauguin brought to Arles Emile Bernard's "Breton women in the meadow/Pardon at Pont-Aven" ("Les Bretonnes dans la prairie/Bretonnes au Pardon") which he used to decorate the shared workshop. This work was equally striking and illustrative of the style Emile Bernard had already acquainted Van Gogh with when he sent him a batch of drawings in August, so much so that Van Gogh made a watercolor copy of the "Pardon" (December 1888) which he sent to his brother Theo Van Gogh (art dealer). The following year Van Gogh still vividly remembered the painting in his written portrait of Emile Bernard in a letter to his sister Wil (Dec.10 ,1889): "...it was so original I absolutely wanted to have a copy."
Bernard's style was effective and coherent as can also be seen from the comparison of the two "portraits" Bernard and Gauguin sent to Van Gogh at the end of September 1888 at the latter's request: self-portraits -at Gauguin's initiative- each integrating a small portrait of the other in the background. One of Emile Bernard's drawings from the August batch ("...a lane of trees near the sea with two women talking in the foreground and some strollers" -Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to Bernard -Arles 1888) also appears to have inspired the work Van Gogh and Gauguin did on the Allée des Alyscamps in Arles.
In 1891 he joined a group of Symbolist painters that included Odilon Redon and Ferdinand Hodler. In 1893 he started travelling, to Egypt, Spain and Italy and after that his style became more eclectic. He returned to Paris in 1904 and died there in 1941
Theories on Style and Art: Cloisonnism and Symbolism
Bernard theorized a style of painting with bold forms separated by dark contours which became known as cloisonnism. His work showed geometric tendencies which hinted at influences of Paul Cézanne, and he collaborated with Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh.
Many say that it was Bernard’s friend Anquetin, who should receive the credit for this “closisonisme” technique. During the spring of 1887, Bernard and Anquetin “turned against Neo-Impressionism.” It is also likely that Bernard was influenced by the works he had seen of Cezanne. But Bernard says “When I was in Brittany, I was inspired by “everything that is superfluous in a spectacle is covering it with reality and occupying our eyes instead of our mind. You have to simplify the spectacle in order to make some sense of it. You have, in a way, to draw its plan.”
"The first means that I use is to simplify nature to an extreme point. I reduce the lines only to the main contrasts and I reduce the colors to the seven fundamental colors of the prism. To see a style and not an item. To highlight the abstract sense and not the objective. And the second means were to appeal to the conception and to the memory by extracting yourself from any direct atmosphere. Appeal more to internal memory and conception. There I was expressing myself more, it was me that I was describing, although I was in front of the nature. There was an invisible meaning under the mute shape of exteriority."
Symbolism and religious motifs appear in both Bernard and Gauguin's work. During the summer of 1889, Bernard was alone in Le Pouldu and began to paint many religious canvasses. He was upset that he had to do commercial work at the same time that he wanted to create these pieces. Bernard wrote about his relationship with this the style of symbolism in many letters, articles, and statements. He said that it was of a Christian essence, divine language. Bernard believed that it “It is the invisible express by the visible,” and those previous attempts of religious symbolism failed. That period of symbolism represented the nature of beauty, but did not find the truth in the beauty. Art until the renaissance was based on the invisible rather than the visible, the idea, not the shapes or concrete. The history of the painting of symbols was spiritual. Everything, meaning symbols, were forgotten with the paganist ideas and doctrines. That is what Bernard was attempting to accomplish with the rebirth of symbolism in 1890. In his idea of the new symbolism, he concentrated on maintaining a grounded art, more authentic in Bernard’s mind meant reducing impressionism, not creating an optical trip like Georges-Pierre Seurat, but simplifying the actual symbol.
His concept was that through ideas, not technique, the truth is found.
His correspondence with other artists is of great art historical interest. Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Bernard traded ideas and art. Many letter sent from Van Gogh and Gauguin to Bernard give historians a better idea of the artists lives and connection to their artwork.
Lettres à Emile Bernard de Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Odilon Redon, Paul Cézanne, Elémir Bourges, Léon Bloy, G. Apollinaire, Jori-Karl Huysmans, Henry de Groux, Editions de la Nouvelle Revue Belgique, Brussels 1942
It was always Emile Bernard's great frustration that Paul Gauguin never mentioned him as an influence on pictorial symbolism. (see for instance his own notes attached to the Belgian edition (1942) of his selected letters, published shortly after his death) In 2001/2002 The Art Institute of Chicago and the Van Gogh Museum,Amsterdam held a joint exhibition:Van Gogh and Gauguin:The Workshop of the Souththat put Emile Bernard's contribution in perspective.
One of Émile Bernard's students was the Swedish painter Ivan Aguéli.