Review by: Jeff Patterson
No other work for me of the Impressionist era (even tipping into Post-Impressionism for that matter) has had quite an effect on my eyes like Jules Bastien-Lepage's intriguing work Jeanne d'Arc of 1880. Although it may be just the simple reason that I am drawn personally to this heroine and her amazing deeds and tragic fate, there also exists when looking at this work, the perfect capturing of the mystically euphoric, especially when my glimpse catches Bastien-Lepage's perfect rendering of Jeanne, with her beautiful blue eyes, when she is abruptly distracted by the heed of her Voices. For all the other Impressionist works which I have seen so far, I cannot keep my attention drawn long enough for the power of their images that I have heard, or read, are supposed to be there. Unlike Bastien-Lepage's painting, I am somewhat lost, or moved only a little by, say, Monet's water lilies only after I learn of the story behind them when the old man was coming to terms by a long life while painting in his personal garden. If it is just the attention span, so be it, as I would gladly be content with inattentiveness to all the other works of art of this era if it meant I could still feel the rapture of this painting's grip it has on me.
When researching the background of this work by an important but lesser known artist of the Impressionist era (Bastien-Lepage's untimely death at 37 probably has something to do with this) , I read a passage by an art critic named Marie Bashkirtseff who interestingly, I learned, was often "frank and severe" when discussing works of art for even which she admired. However, this painting perfectly portraying the legendary heroine must have even softened her own shell of discriminating artistic harshness when she declared, "Nothing in painting has ever moved me like the Jeanne d'Arc of Bastien-Lepage. . .there is something indescribably mysterious and marvelous about it. There you have a sentiment which the artist has thoroughly understood, the perfect and intense expression of a great inspiration, -something great and human, inspired and divine at the same moment, in fact what it actually was, and what no one before him had ever understood. Only think of all the Jeanne d'Arcs that have been painted before! Good Heavens! why they are as common as Ophelias and Gretchens! But in this incomparable artist you find what is only to be found in the sacred art of Italy, in the days when men believed in what they painted." I would like to offer my own personal feelings regarding this work, if it is not already apparent, the thoughts of the critics and public, and briefly touch upon Bastien-Lepage's conception in relation to other artists who have also approached this subject on how to capture the spirit of The Maid of France. Bastien-Lepage's painting, like Joan's voices, has some kind of mysterious force which is whispering to Ms. Bashkirtseff, and also to us.
I think the first aspect that really "started the church bells ringing" was the tapestry-like effect borrowed from the Impressionists, mainly the foreground and background containing the underbrush and timber area of Jeanne's home. It is somewhat disconcerting, this blurred optical effect, where the eye wants to distinguish between the different planes of the yard (critics would often complain of this technique in his paintings which started with Jeanne d'Arc. Another good example which is also reproduced in our class textbook "19th Century Art" by Rosenblum and Janson is the painting Pere Jacques of 1881).
And this, I think, was considered one of the artists "fumblings" in this inspired work (the main "fumblings" I will get to shortly) Strange, it is a paradox, disorienting yes, but somewhat truthful. And what I mean by truthful is actually noticing at times, in real life with my own eyes, the fusion of different areas of foreground and background due to natures magical embellishing of earth tones of underbrush and timber. As Bastien-Lepage himself commented on the criticism concerning this, and other problem areas, "They tell me that my values are not correct. That may be true. But upon my word I only paint things as I see them, and it is impossible that I should borrow other people's eyes. " Upon first viewing, I had a hard time telling if Jeanne' s arm was outstretched in ecstasy or holding on to something (I later learned she is grasping the leaves of a bush at her side) . I guess in some ways it resembles Manet's "Luncheon on the Grass" where Manet was also criticized for a kind of indecisive perspective among the his three sitters, the conservative critics not knowing where to step into or back away from.
While on the subject of the similarity of Manet and Bastien-Lepage's techniques, the notion of "studio lit" or "staged scene" is hinted at when comparing Bastien-Lepage's work and again to Manet's Luncheon" (I was going to mention "Christ Mocked" but the comparison seemed by then more of an extreme difference) . Like "Luncheon", Bastien-Lepage's atmosphere for Jeanne seems a little suspiciously placed against a backdrop piled convincingly with thick underbrush, This may natural be due to the optical effect the earth tones have to the viewer s eyes when enveloping Jeanne. The lighting no doubt contributes to a kind of paradox again, between natural and artificial light. One can never exactly pinpoint the true source, and I think this gives the painting overall, a supernatural atmosphere lingering about it, which in a way works for Bastien-Lepage's benefit than did the problem of the Impressionistic technique cited earlier. Instead of giving Jeanne a "kitsch" holy glow surrounding her, this somewhat eerie nuance is more quiet, but none the less rapturous. It sounds like this is what Bastien-Lepage hoped to achieve, in this profoundly experimental but passionate work to him, when one reads about his intentions for the final composition. Speaking of "supernatural atmospheres", let us now touch upon the idea of representing Jeanne' s voices, probably the most famous complaint of all during the Salon of 1880.
I myself am somewhat divided on this aspect, which I will tell why in a moment. While reading up on the general consensus regarding its first appearance in front of the critics, there seemed to be two side regarding the idea of Joan's Voices: the realists complained that the Voices were represented at all. The rest, not enough. The critics, even his "warmest admirers", were puzzled by the suggested luminous, supernatural vapor entangled in front of Jeanne s farmhouse giving rise to the three saints. It is interesting to note that Bastien-Lepage's first idea on the problem concerning the Voices was to represent the gilt and painted images of the patron Saints of Domremy, as hidden among the fruit-trees of the orchard, so it is exciting to imagine this initial conception having been worked farther out, and also the possibility that this may have saved him from be criticized for the other idea later on. However, Bastien-Lepage felt that Jeanne s vision must be "embodied in a palpable form" in order for the "mystical meaning" to become realized to the viewer. It is this fine line, I think, between indecisiveness of showing the literalvs. the imaginative, that gave rise to Bastien-Lepage's greatest stumbling block. In response to this defect contributing to the harmony of the rest of the painting, he stated, "Well, this is Jeanne d'Arc, a young peasant girl of Lorraine, who sees visions. My figure is true; surely the rest may be left to my imagination. "
When I first viewed this peculiar work I did not see the impression of the three Saints hovering in the sky. I actually thought the hinting at Voices was pulled off by just placing Jeanne to the other side of the frame, with her right side tilted upward, listening to her beckoning calls on the other end. When I noticed them, and was particularly startled by the way they morph, it seems, out of Jeanne s cottage wall and the opposing tree branches on either side. I actually rather find this "fumbling for effect" quite astonishing, but I can also see where the critics pointed out on the difficulty of pulling off this trick, considering Lepage s reputation more akin to a "Milletian" influence. Lepage embarked out of his own familiar territory at the moment, they commented, and there may be to some eyes, a slight hesitation on what to do with these Voices of Jeanne's when making their appearance to us as well.
And now we come to the grandest aspect of all in Lepage' s work, that of Jeanne herself. If the general consensus was divided or disappointed with the strangeness of Lepage's composition, quite the opposite can be said regarding the depiction of the Maid, which they considered a masterpiece of figure drawing, and probably Lepage's one true success at realizing fully his own idea and bringing his message across to the viewer. Lepage wanted to give the impression of the type of physiognomy of the local Lorraine type, Jeanne's birthplace and also Bastien-Lepage's. As Theuriet remarked on this, "The forehead low but intelligent, the eyes with drooping lids that half conceal the somewhat sullen glance; the bones prominent in cheek and jaw, the chin square, indicative of an opinionated race; the mouth large, with half parted lips, through which one perceives the passage of the deep-drawn breath. " One obviously senses a similarity with Degas' dancers, in his many recordings of their own features and gestures and the woman in Bastien-Lepage's other well known work Haymaking also looks similar. Bastien-Lepage had managed quite marvelously to capture the perfect expression of a divinely inspired human soul, overturning her spinning wheel with agitation, caught up in a rapturous "calling card" from her beloved messengers of God.
I have seen many other depiction's of Joan throughout the 19th century, as this was the time of the disastrous Franco-Prussian war. A kind of cult revival began in the 1870's as a result of this dilemma, and more especially after France had lost Alsac-Lorraine to Germany. The nation of France desperately needed a morale booster once again, and so a heap of works, mostly monumental sculpture by artists such as Fremiet and Dubois and Marie, Princess de Orleans, responded to this dire need.
However, the area of painting produced, one could say, a rather mediocre sensibility in paying Jeanne their homage. Some were even on the illustrative level. Probably the one monumental exception in painting is Ingres' well known depiction of Jeanne in a classical antiquity stance, perfectly proportioned. But that was completed in 1854. Bastien-Lepage, unlike grand academic artists such as Ingres, did not model his Jeanne out of an atelier awareness, but went to the heart in depicting a true shepherdess of Lorraine (his exhaustive preparatory sketches a trips to Domremy attest to this) . There are no actual painted depictions of Jeanne that we know of (only a caricature of her scribbled in the margin of the official history of the Orleans siege, made by a notary of the Paris parliament, who unfortunately never saw her) save one rumored to have been painted by a passing Scotsman depicting Jeanne kneeling at court, and to which she happily re-marked of it looking just like her. But this is now lost. (Too bad, because we have a better painting done by Fouquet of her Dauphin, a grave Charles VII) . It almost seems as if Jeanne was too spiritually beautiful for this world to be captured in paint, and any other medium for that matter. But I think Bastien-Lepage has succeeded the closest in imagining the adorable "Pucelle" that making of any kind can put together before, or since. His Jeanne is the perfect balance of divinity and humanity played so harmoniously to the eye, and the mind. Surely, as critic Bashkirsteff noted in the earlier quote the result doesn't lend itself to an "Ophelia" or "Gretchen" at all. And quite honestly, I agree.
I can sympathize with Bastien-Lepage on this looked upon "half way success", or vice versa, according to the critics and public at large. At times in my own painting classes I have also gone the overworked route, working too hard on a piece of work, being overly enthusiastic for my own good. Bastien-Lepage, this Legion of Honor winner in the past, had defied the expectations of the Salon jury by possibly saying too much in this flawed work, his passions running to high. What a burden of sadness that must have clouded him when, being a Lorraine native in heart and soul, like his shepherdess, he began for a time to doubt his own powers as a capture of the poetic landscape and it's peasants he knew so well (The Salon of 1880, I found out, took the popular view and awarded Bastien-Lepage's hoped for medal of honor to Morot's Good Samaritan, now considered a far inferior work) . However, Bastien-Lepage was truthful to himself with this work till the end, like his beloved Jeanne. Maybe a poignant quote by Jeanne herself at her trial would best complete this thought of Bastien-Lepage the painter giving it his all, like Jeanne did for her country, when she remarked that, "In my village there is an old saying. That he who tells too much truth is sure to be hanged. "