For the Naturalist artist Émile Friant (1863–1932), 1889 was a watershed. His painting of All Saints’ Day (1888) had been a great success at the Salon in Paris, and received a gold medal at the following Exposition Universelle. On the strength and proceeds of this, he travelled to the Netherlands, Spain, and Algeria.
Friant followed this success with two more important works. Political Discussion (1889) shows four rural workers engaged in debate about some issue of the day. Their thoughts and tongues suitably liberated by glasses of cognac, one looks passionately involved, waving his hand in the air, with a newspaper in front of him. Two others look intently at him, apparently keeping out of the argument, and the fourth, at the right, looks away in disagreement.
The rich golden light in the nearby tree and fence suggests that this is late on a summer’s day, although there are surprisingly few clues from shadows.
This can be read as an endorsement of free expression of political opinions and debate in the Third Republic.
The Fight, or Wrestling, from the same year, is another rural scene from near Nancy. A group of boys have gathered by a small river, and look ready to enter the water. Two are in the foreground, on the opposite bank, engaged in a fight. They are strained over, as one holds the other in a wrestling lock, with their legs spread wide apart and tensed.
Friant appears to have been an early and enthusiastic photographer, who used photographic prints as an aid to his painting. By the 1890s, some of his paintings bore the hallmarks of optical experimentation, such as his Ombres portées (Cast Shadows) of 1891. This shadowplay of a couple lit by a bright point source shows the man looking imploringly up at the woman, who looks aside. The shadow of his head is about to kiss her left cheek, but her shadow is distant from his.
The Frugal Meal (1894) returns to a more social theme, as a poor family with four daughters sits down to a meal consisting of a bowl piled high with potatoes, and nothing else. More worryingly, the pot on the floor at the left is empty. Friant’s sketchy backdrop includes an area void of plaster, above the father, and a small bird in a cage, at the top right.
Friant’s motifs became increasingly eclectic towards the end of the nineteenth century. The Small Boat (1895) is an idealistic view of a young couple sailing below cliffs, with a dreamlike softness to the sails. The couple are dressed in immaculate whites, interestingly with the woman at the tiller, and the man leaning back against her thigh.
Chagrin d’Enfant (A Child’s Disappointment) (1897-98) is an insightful double portrait of a young mother smiling at, and embracing, her grumpy young daughter.
Friant’s Sorrow (1898) returns to the municipal cemetery of All Saints’ Day, this time for a funeral, and a very intimate study of the grief of a widow, who is being helped by two younger women. Their overt reactions contrast with the cluster of men, with their stern beards, at the left.
In the 1890s, Friant became a passionate aviation enthusiast. Together with a friend from Nancy – one of the oarsmen in Friant’s painting of 1887 – he founded an aviation society, and flew in balloons and early aircraft.
Journey to Infinity (1899) is an extraordinary flight of fancy in a balloon, which is soaring high above a bank of grey clouds (or possibly a rugged mountain ridge) which contain the forms of five nude women, one of them apparently performing a handstand. I suspect that this painting may have been made for Marie Marvingt (1875-1963), an athlete, mountaineer, and pioneer aviator, who had moved to Nancy in 1889 (see below).
In 1900, Friant was awarded his second gold medal by an Exposition Universelle, and the following year he was appointed to the Legion of Honour. After this he spent more time working on prints than he did painting, as reflected in his few surviving paintings from the twentieth century.
Maternal Tenderness (1906) is another intimate double portrait of a mother with her daughter, this time out in the sunshine of a fine summer’s day. At their feet is the family dog, looking faithfully up at them, and the girl’s doll.
Atonement (1908) is an even greater contrast, showing a condemned man about to walk to the guillotine for a public execution. His arms are tied behind his back, and he strains forward towards an elderly priest, who is holding a small crucifix aloft as he strives to save the man’s soul. At the foot of the guillotine are three bearded executioners, dressed in black with top hats. Crowds are packed onto the rooves and at the windows of the buildings in the background. It is snowing.
I find it hard to read Friant’s In Front of the Psyche (1912), which shows a nude woman stroking her hair in joy. Beside her on a chair are her clothes, with smart black shoes and a floridly feathered hat. At the left edge are the posts of a bed, but there is no clue as to whether someone else is there. The background is very vague and sketchy, and what looks like a circular mirror on the wall shows no clear reflection.
Friant was too old to serve in the First World War, and despite the proximity of Nancy to some of the major battlefields, he seems to have stayed there for much of the time. He engaged in activities to help the war effort, particularly with respect to aviation.
In the years before the war, Friant had apparently become friends with Marie Marvingt, and helped her develop her flying skills and experience. In 1909, she had become the first woman to pilot a balloon across the North Sea and English Channel from mainland Europe to England, and the following year became the third French woman to have a pilot’s licence.
In 1910, Marvingt had proposed the concept of fixed-wing air ambulances to the French government. Friant helped her promote the idea in this drawing of Marie Marvingt and her Air Ambulance (1914). She then disguised herself as a man so that she could serve as an infantry soldier for France during the war, but was discovered and sent home. In 1915, she became the first woman to fly combat missions, as a volunteer bomber pilot, for which she was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
She continued to campaign for, and help develop, air ambulances, establishing a civil air ambulance service in Morocco in 1934, and the following year became the first certified Flight Nurse. To celebrate her eightieth birthday in 1955, she was flown over Nancy in an US Air Force fighter jet (F101).
Friant’s late paintings including other disjoint themes. The Birds (1921) is a brilliantly colourful and detailed erotic fantasy which demonstrates his great technical skills, but has drifted far away from his earlier Naturalism and social concerns.
In 1923, Friant was appointed a professor of drawing at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and he died in that city on 9 June 1932.
Wikipedia on Marie Marvingt and her extraordinary achievements.
Richard Thomson (2012) Art of the Actual, Naturalism and Style in Early Third Republic France, 1880-1900, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 17988 0.