Eugène Carrière and Symbolism

In this discussion I examine the painting The First Communion, also known as The Bride, an oil on canvas completed in 1896 by Eugène Carrière, a French Symbolist painter, who lived from 1849 to 1906. The painting was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1963 as a bequest of Chester Dale, an American banker and patron of the arts. It is located in the European 19th century gallery, among the works of other Symbolist artists, including the sculptor Rodin, who was a close friend of Carrière. Carrière originally trained as a commercial lithographer and resolved to become an artist at 19, after admiring works by Raphael and Rubens in Germany. He studied under Cabanel in the 1870s at the École des Beaux-Arts. Carrière had a great admiration for many of the old masters, and his artistic style began in a naturalist vein, but as it progressed, he deliberately excluded any details that might inform the viewer of the time and place. Deeply rooted in Carrière’s being was the feeling of the unity existing between mankind and all forms of nature. During his career, Carrière won numerous awards and produced large amounts of commercial work including portraits and decorative panels that were displayed at the Salon, including the Kiss of Innocence, which had a rich, painterly, sentimental and decorative quality. After Carrière’s paintings triumphed at the Salons of 1886 and 1887, he started to receive private and state commissions and, through critical success, was able to achieve (at the age of forty) a measure of financial stability through his art. One of the highest points in Carrière’s career was when his works were exhibited in exclusive gallery exhibitions in Geneva, Brussels, Paris and London in 1896-1897. Carrière painted many portraits of his contemporaries including his most famous – that of the Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, which is located in Paris in the Musée d’Orsay, along with almost 100 of Carrière’s other works. Some relate his melancholy and monochrome palette to that of Pablo Picasso’s blue period.

Although he produced some genre and landscape scenes (nearly all in his monochromatic, vaporous style), and some portraits with detailed facial features, Carrière’s career-long interest was in painting isolated figures often lost in thought. Of his portraits, the greatest number depict his wife or children engaged in a simple domestic task, or asleep or most often, quietly embracing. Increasingly over time, he stripped his work to basic visual and expressive essentials by restricting the sense of space and his palette, and focused capturing the mood or personality of the sitter. His Symbolist paintings had a characteristic misty, monochromatic technique of carefully nuanced umber and, after 1900, grey tones.

Symbolism as an aesthetic trend began on the fringes, at a time when the exhibition system of art in France was liberalized. Symbolism was largely a reaction against depicting naturalism and realism, that is, things as they are seen in life. Symbolism favored spirituality, the imagination and dreams. The Symbolist art movement challenged the academic notion of unity of style, and it was a convergence of art and literature that forged a new style in painting and attracted painters of varying backgrounds, including Carrière (Naturalism), Paul Gauguin (Impressionist) and Odilon Redon (late Romanticism). As the end of the 20th century drew to a close, a cultural awareness pervaded France (and all of Europe) and was represented in the works of the leading thinkers and artists. Symbolists wanted to put a new face to humanity and bring a timeless perspective to human affairs, so that mankind was no longer viewed in everyday poses. A return to the sacred and recognition of the importance of spirituality became crucial. The images used in Symbolism are not the familiar emblems of mainstream iconography but intensely personal, private, obscure and ambiguous references. In 1886, the critic Jean Moréas, who, in his Manifesto of Symbolism, announced that Symbolism was hostile to “plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description”, first suggested the term Symbolism. This was in sharp contrast to the Impressionists, who were concerned with capturing modern day outdoor urban scenes, fashion and the immediacy of light, inspired by the tangible outcomes of the industrial revolution.

Symbolists were not concerned with naturalistic reporting of light and, as can be seen in The First Communion, Carrière abandoned the use of color, thereby eliminating the possibility of establishing the time of day. This is known as ‘veiling’ the canvas and is a fundamental element of the Symbolist style.

The artists, writers and poets of the Symbolist movement shared theoretical positions, social concerns, artistic goals and stylistic approaches. The quality of a poetic, dreamlike state that pervades Carrière’s work appealed to Symbolist critics and writers of the time. His painting style was described as having the magic of dreams and of not an image of reality but the appearance or disappearance of this image on consciousness.

Carrière’s The First Communion is a near-monochrome painting of a girl who is experiencing her First Communion. First Communion is a Christian (particularly Catholic and Roman Catholic) tradition, considered to be a commemoration of the Last Supper, the final meal that Jesus Christ shared with his disciples before his arrest and eventual crucifixion. During the Last Supper, Jesus gave his disciples bread, saying, “This is my body”, and wine, saying, “This is my blood”. A child is first allowed to take communion when they reach seven or eight years of age. During this event the child eats bread (symbolizing the body of Christ) and drinks a sip of wine from a cup (symbolizing the blood of Christ). Through this process, the child symbolically receives the grace of the gift of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins and full membership into the Church. The clothing worn during the ceremony is often white to symbolize purity. Girls often wear bride-like dresses and a veil attached to a headdress, as well as either long or short white gloves, as can be seen in Carrière’s painting. The alternative name of the painting, The Bride, is appropriate not just because of her costume, but because she is actually becoming a “bride of Christ” through the communion ceremony. By accepting to live her life according to the Christian faith she is symbolically being married to Christ.

Rather than representing the religious ceremony, Carrière conveys the mystical aspect of the event through the figure’s stylized form, expressionless face and ghostly presence. The depiction of spiritual and physical purity are emphasized through the color white. The inward turned eyes represent an internal world of thought, and are a running theme of paintings in Symbolist era. The vacant eyes isolate the viewer from the soul of the person, keeping the viewer ‘outside’, and help us to relate to the emotion embodied in this archetypal figure. The generalized features of the face and the eliminated environment are typical of Carrière’s later paintings, and he did this to make the figures represent humanity as a whole. The isolated figure is contemplating eternity, salvation and the significance of the ceremony that she has just taken part in, or is about to take part in. She looks as though she is communing with God as her closed eyed face is directed upwards, towards the sky or towards the priest from who she is receiving the bread and wine. The gesture of the hands resting peacefully on her lap, and she looks as though she is inwardly connecting with God. Without the use of much detail, Carrière is able to achieve powerful emotion.

The First Communion stands out in his oeuvre because it has such a large amount of white, which although not of a high value, due to the dark earth tone underpainting, still achieves a strong contrast between the light and shade because the brown surrounding the figure is so rich in places. It is clear that Carrière was inspired by the 16th century painting atmospheric affect “Tenebrism” (Tenerosity meaning darkness) in which lighter figures and forms emerge out of quiet, mysterious darkness. Carrière was fascinated with incompleteness and transparency, and he believed that painting was “the logical development of light” (ref). Although Carriere refrained from open acknowledgement of a divine creator, Bantens reflects on his interest in painting religious subjects (themes included the Crucifixion, and, Christ and Mary Magdalene) in his book ‘Eugène Carrière: the symbol of creation’, suggesting that Carrière may have been viewed light as the first element of Biblical creation: “As the source of all energy and life, light penetrated the dark primal flux to bring forth life”. Carrière, during this period, insisted that his palette be described not as brown but as “earth-toned” because earth tones symbolized the amorphous matter prior to the generation of life through the activating forces of spiritual energy.

What is certain is Carrière’s immersion in the Symbolist poetry created by his contemporaries, including Verlaine, Mallarme and Baudelaire, whose writings explored dream or trance-like states of mind, and intellectual thought that led to a new and higher awareness of spiritual truth. Mallarme said, “to name an object, that is to suppress three-quarters of the poem’s joy that is derived from the happiness of guessing a little at the time; to suggest it, there is the dream. It is the perfect usage of this mystery that constitutes the symbol: to evoke an object little by little to reveal a state of soul.”

Like the old master painters, which Carrière studied, earth tones were the color of choice for his underpainting, and these affected the value of color used afterwards. The white paint in The First Communion has reduced value because of the dark umber tones used as a base. The white color appears to have been gradually painted in thin veils. This is particularly evident near the top right of the head, above and on the veil. The effect creates the form of the girl vibrating out of the darkness, making her look like an apparition. This is appropriate for the theme of the painting and her communication with the Holy Spirit, and perhaps our own contemplation of the fate of our soul. This soft transition is a Renaissance painting style called sfumato and was used by Leonardo da Vinci in the Mona Lisa. The technique of softening outlines and allowing tones and colors to shade gradually into one another produces a softened, hazy form. The technique consists of painting with a translucent dark color, and then while wet, painting back into this dark with an opaque lighter color – white in Carrière’s case. The opaque lighter color darkens, and simultaneously, the darks lighten. This operation is repeated and, by so doing, the artist can achieve very subtle blending effects. The translucency of the darks, repeatedly applied and blended into the lights, also lends an enameled character to the result.

Carrière often combined a variety of techniques within different sections of one painting. Whether it was a landscape or a portrait, Carrière’s process and technique was an integral part of his content and he specialized in animating the surface through manipulation of the materials in unconventional ways, to add expression. In his work, Carrière tried to achieve the same emotional response that wells up inside you when you hear emotive music; he believed that “painting is music”. In The First Communion, textural striations are evident on the lower section of the dress, which may have been achieved with scratching the wet paint with a dry brush. The veil encompasses her like a safe round womb, perhaps a metaphor for her soul being saved through the process of communion. The oval shape of the face matches the oval shape of the veil, and the curled organic shape of the arm. The shape of the girl is distinguished where the dress and arm come together and in this space the white paint has been carefully applied. The lower section of the dress is painted in the shape of an egg shape, with sweeping large brushstrokes of white, layered over the visible umber tones. This egg-shape figure within a formless environment gives the painting a capsule-of-time feeling. The painting successfully creates the sense that this state is “a moment in time” and allows us to relate to that feeling, if we have experienced communion, or realize that we could also have this feeling, if we were to go through communion.

In the brown area surrounding the figure, the paint is densely applied everywhere but the lower right hand side of the canvas. Although you can see brush strokes on the canvas the only impasto evident is on the white glove, and on areas of the flowers. There are three flowers: high at the neck of the dress, at waist-belt of the dress, and on the topside of the head. A sizeable cross is worn as a necklace or is perhaps embodied into the fabric of the dress on the chest of the girl.

Carrière did not paint in terms of three-dimensional forms, but rather in terms of shapes revealed by the power of light penetrating the darkness. Conversely, Carriere often handled the face as a fleeting apparition, and gave it three-dimensional qualities, while leaving the rest of the figure and painting formless.

In raking light, the canvas is in excellent condition except for a raised bubble (the size of a quarter) in the top centre of the painting, in the brown area. The vertical marks at the right side of the painting indicate that the painting has been reframed at least once.

Bibliography

Bantens, Robert James. Eugène Carrière, his work and his influences. Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1983.

Bantens, Robert James. Eugène Carrière: the symbol of creation. New York: Kent, 1990.

Delvolve, J. “A Selection of the Writings and Letters of Eugène Carrière”, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 21, no. 114 (1912).

Hollis, Richard. “Ghostly realist”, The Guardian, August 26, 2006, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2006/aug/26/art.art/print (accessed October 26, 2009).

Nora-Milin, Véronique Nora-Milin. Eugène Carrière, 1849–1906: Catalogue raisonné de l’œuvre peint. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 2008.

Rapetti, Rodolphe. Symbolism, trans. Deke Dusinberre. Paris: Flammarion, 2005.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art Art History. Eugène Carrière “The First Communion” www.metmuseum.org/works_of_art/collection_database/european_paintings/the_first_communion_eugene_carriere/objectview.aspx?collID=11&OID=110000288 (accessed October 22, 2009).

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