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Last of the French Masters

Breton Women at a Pardon, 1887

An Acedemic genre painter from France, Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret was born in Paris on January 7, 1852. Pascal had a style reminiscent of Adrien Moreau and Émile Friant in that he captured the natural everyday, especially fascinated with the customs and rituals of people from different walks of life. Looking at Pascal's body of work we see a very eclectic and often inconsistent rhythm, at times amazing and yet occasionally odd, especially in his religious-mystical work. Pascal is also noted for his pioneering work in the use of photography as reference material, a practice that many artists of the day were discovering to be a highly useful and time-saving tool. Read more about this on a post by James Gurney.

Bretons are a subculture of historically Celtic-based French who live in Northwestern France. In the Breton Women at a Pardon, Pascal uses grays and muted tones to convey a peaceful, Amish-like quality, with the women in full costume sitting quietly in the grass outside of church. This scene was most likely taken place after the pardon, which is a Breton religious custom of going to mass on a saint's day in something of an all-day confessional prayer service followed by an outdoor procession and picnics. Note the clever composition with the figures, berm and the church forming a sort of zigzag line. The arrangement of the women in the grass, seated so neatly as if at a table, serves to emphasize the chaste propriety of this culture.

An Accident, 1879

This painting earned Pascal a first-class medal when he exhibited it at the Salon in Paris in 1880. Depicting a reinterpretation of an apparently true story of a young boy bandaged up by a country doctor after some unknown accident, Pascal uses dramatic available light with the strong perspective of the table while the young boy's family watches. Pascal tells the story with details of the home they live in, and judging by the elders surrounding the boy he is the youngest of the family. The bowl with blood and rag has a tactile quality that, despite its appearance, is not disconcerting at all. The facial expressions here all tell a separate story in themselves, which is what makes this painting one of his best.

The Spectators, 1877

I love this painting. It looks like a scene from a film, and yet it has Pascal's powers of perception here. Two people look out from a window, and yet they themselves are framed by the window, a story within a story. Their view is not relevant according to Pascal, and if you look closely they are both looking at different things as they are facing different directions. Or perhaps they are both lost in thought, or daydreaming. Pascal describes a texture of dirty stucco surrounding the window, with a thin clothes line and flower pot, and behind them a modest bedroom. By raising more questions than it answers, Pascal creates a moment in time that is existential and real, simple yet complex.

Gustave Courtois in his studio, 1880

Gustave Courtois was a student of Pascal that became a close friend that they shared a studio together with in the 1880's. Courtois was primarily a figure painter of women, and here Pascal finds a moment of quiet silliness. Courtois holds his palette (with a range of skin tones) and brushes in one hand and his unusually long mahl stick in the other against the tip of his shoe. Next to him is a model in a fur coat and scarf, probably waiting to undress and pose nude for Courtois. The studio itself has the feel of something artists would use as a studio, complete with tacky couch, folding screen, animal rug, cool north light from a window, and a mirror reflecting paintings in the background. We can already sense the kind of wacky personality Courtois must have had just by his expression and pose here, and a endearing, spontaneous portrait of a fellow artist and friend.

Portrait of a Brittany Girl, ca.1887

This rather stylish portrait of a Breton woman is painted from a nearly 90 degree angle, with her wistful gaze off to the left of the image. She is beautiful yet appears calm, except for the way she crosses her hands uncomfortably on her lap. This painting uses texture and brushstrokes to convey her sense of presence and charm, and despite an empty dark wall behind her the portrait works because of the psychology of her body language. Pascal had an uncanny ability to capture people in their natural essence, unposed, and more real as a result. The expression in the eyes and mouth reveal a reluctance to be there yet perhaps flattered to be painted by an artist. Pascal did use the camera to freeze these moments in time, yet it was to let the subject relax and be themselves, which is the soul of all portraiture and painting.


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