Following the sudden death of the great and very influential Jules Bastien-Lepage, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1852–1929) was the most distinguished and successful painter in ‘Naturalist’ style. After an initial visit to Brittany in 1885, Dagnan-Bouveret turned his attention to that most westerly part of France, a complete change from his earlier works from the Franche-Comté region in the far east of the country.
Like the older Jules Breton, Dagnan-Bouveret was fascinated by the extensive religious pilgrimages known as pardons, but does not seem to have attempted to paint large gatherings of pilgrims in a full-scale pardon, like Breton. His first painting showing those attending a pardon was completed in 1886, as The Pardon in Brittany.
Dagnan-Bouveret shows men and women of all ages walking barefoot, holding lighted candles. The older man with a stick to the left of centre is strongly reminiscent of some in Breton’s earlier paintings of pardons. This painting was awarded a medal of honour at the Exposition Universelle in 1889.
Dagnan-Bouveret prepared for these works conventionally, with studies such as this Portrait of a Breton Girl (1887), and using the radically new technique of photography, and was one of the first painters to employ photography in the production of his paintings.
Bretons at a Pardon (1887) shows a group of Breton women attending the Pardon of Rumengol, which takes place in this village to the east of Faou. At least one of the photographs which he took when developing this work survives, but was unsuitable for inclusion here.
Dagnan-Bouveret painted a series of modern interpretations of traditional religious works. Among them is his profoundly beautiful Madonna of the Trellis (1888), which shows the Virgin Mary embracing the infant Christ under trellis work with dense foliage. It departs from artistic tradition in that the Madonna is dressed in white, rather than classical ultramarine blue, and has a contemporary appearance.
In 1888, Dagnan-Bouveret, Louis-Auguste Girardot and Jules-Alexis Muenier visited Tétouan in Morocco together, although Dagnan-Bouveret doesn’t appear to have left any surviving Orientalist paintings from that trip.
He also painted some modern history works, of which the most famous is Conscripts (1889). This shows a group of young men who have just been conscripted into the army, marching behind a very non-military drummer and a boy bearing the national flag. The conscripts walk with their arms linked to express their solidarity.
Dagnan-Bouveret delayed exhibiting this painting for two years, then in 1891 it stole the show at the re-organised Salon run by the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. It became a runaway success, and a focus for French nationalism.
Dagnan-Bouveret was at the height of his Naturalism by the early 1890s, and painted another well-known example, his In the Forest of 1893. This shows a group of itinerant people sat together, eating to the sound of a violin. Behind them are two oxen, and the forest which is currently their home.
After these two paintings, Dagnan-Bouveret abandoned Naturalism and concentrated his efforts on religious works.
The Last Supper (1896) is probably his most spectacular religious painting, which again follows the artistic tradition in most respects, but with more contemporary figures. Christ is shown blessing the bread and wine, lit from a rich source which doesn’t appear in the painting.
Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus (1896-97) shows an earlier meal during Christ’s ministry, using more contemporary figures and looking into the light. This gives Christ a heavenly radiance, lighting his hair in particular.
Dagnan-Bouveret uses light to further dramatic effect in his Marguerite at the Sabbath (1911), inspired by the fate of Gretchen/Margaret in Goethe’s Faust. After the birth of her illegitimate child, Margaret drowns the infant in despair, and is shown here clutching his limp body. This is set at the witches Sabbath on Walpurgis Night, lit by the flames of a bonfire.
Saint-Trophime in Arles (1914) appears to be a straightforward townscape of the centre of Arles, showing the celebrated ancient Romanesque church of Saint Trophime at the right.
When Dagnan-Bouveret turned seventy in 1922, he painted this wonderful portrait of Old Julie, from Quincey, in the Franche-Comté, where the artist lived; he died there seven years later in 1929.
More recent re-assessment of the works of Bastien-Lepage and Dagnan-Bouveret propose that they should be considered together, on a par, as the leaders of the Naturalist movement. History may not have done Bastien-Lepage many favours, but it has been of even greater disservice to Dagnan-Bouveret.