In the first of these two articles about the paintings of Jules-Alexis Muenier (1863–1942), I looked at his life and a selection of paintings which exemplify his work. This article looks at how he used photography in painting, and concludes with a few works which refer to painting, or raise other issues.
It’s almost certain that Muenier became a photographer between 1880, when he went to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, and when he travelled to North Africa with Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret in 1888, armed with cameras. Although he may have found it difficult to set up the necessary darkroom and processing laboratory when he was still living in Paris, in 1885 he moved to a large house on his parents-in-law’s estate in Coulevon, which should have been ideal.
His classical training with Gérôme would have equipped him with the skills needed to make finished paintings for the Salon, in the traditional way. He had also started his training when still at school, by going to drawing lessons. By 1885, he was perfectly capable of developing a major Salon painting using those skills alone.
Although few of his drawings have been found, that is quite common among painters who have been using classical techniques. There are surviving oil studies for several of his major works, including this skilful study for The Breviary from about 1887. The priest shown here also appears in Muenier’s Catechism Class, which was completed in 1890.
I apologise for the poor quality of this image of a copy of Muenier’s finished painting of The Chaplain’s Retreat, better-known as The Breviary from about 1887. Here the priest is sat in contemplation, his breviary in his hand, his fingers keeping his place in it. He is surrounded by the flowers of his garden, and a watering can is at his feet. This recalls metaphors of gardeners from Christian teachings. Behind are the rooves of the village, which he had painted in a separate study.
Although I have been unable to find a suitable image of the painting, this photograph shows Muenier with his painting of The Harpsichord Lesson in about 1911, which became his most famous painting during his lifetime. Although there is nothing to suggest that he is doing this in any unconventional way, Muenier is dressed much too smartly, and his suit and shoes are far too clean, for him to have been caught in the midst of his work here, even though he is holding a brush as if he was.
This is another superb study, this time for Muenier’s large and complex painting Awakening, for which I don’t have a date (or, sadly, an image).
Here is a photograph which appears to show Muenier painting Awakening, with his son Pierre behind him. They are in a beautifully furnished bedroom, which Muenier is using as a studio. The study above has clearly been important in the painting of a central passage in the huge canvas shown. Muenier’s palettes, brushes, and other equipment all give this an air of truth – except that the artist is again dressed immaculately in a clean suit, and there are no sheets or other protection on the floor around the canvas. It all looks too neat and clean.
This photograph of Muenier apparently painting on his property in Coulevon does show the artist, seemingly significantly younger here, holding palette and brushes in the garden of his house. The small pochade box below the easel looks out of place, though, as do his very snappy and clean clothes. Even more puzzling is the painting on which he is seen to be working, which shows an old man and woman outside a property in the village: not something which he could possibly see from this location.
Taken much later in his career, Boat on the Saône shows Muenier dressed much more appropriately, probably genuinely engaged in painting on the River Saône not far from his home. Although the broad brim of his hat weakens the image, it places his eyes in the shade, something essential if you’re not going to paint under a parasol. His brush also looks as if it is making contact with the canvas.
The reality is that Muenier – and Gérôme, and Dagnan-Bouveret – weren’t just happy snapper photographers, but believed in it as fine art. All three were early members of local photographic clubs, and Muenier and Dagnan-Bouveret exhibited their photographs as seriously as their paintings.
Muenier also painted a couple of works which reflect on his own art. The first, The Young Artist, considers the controversial question of the encouragement of women artists. The girl’s teacher is the same model as the instructor in The Harpsichord Lesson, suggesting that this work also dates from around then.
Even more challenging is another undated work, The Young Model Posing in the Studio, which shows the back of a young girl who is posing nude for a packed group of male painters down below her, with their tobacco smoke wafting above them. She is thin, her hair unkempt and loose, and may well have been modelling to pay for her food.
Sadly, I have been unable to discover anything about the background to this work, but it could be read as condemnation of such practices. This is also the only nude painting of his which I have found: he did not appear to favour the ‘academic nude’.
My final work by Muenier could be a monochrome image of an oil painting, an engraving, or a drawing – I know not, and it is also undated. It is the evocative Emigrants, of which I am sure Jules Bastien-Lepage would have been proud.
So how did Muenier use his photography in his painting?
Creating such large, highly detailed realist paintings requires meticulous technique. A final study, arrived at by a combination of drawings, studies, and photographs, would have to be made. In some cases, this could have been a single photograph, but no exact matches seem to have been found.
Muenier then transferred the lines from that final study to his canvas using the traditional square system: the study and canvas would be squared off identically, and outlines and details transferred a square at a time. He also used a camera lucida, and possibly later a projection system, which made the transfer and enlargement simpler. But there is no evidence that he simply painted from photographs: they were one of his aids, no more than that, and remember that this was long before colour photography became feasible too.
Gabriel P Weisberg and others (2010), Illusions of Reality, Naturalist Painting, Photography, Theatre and Cinema, 1875-1918, Van Gogh Museum. ISBN 978 90 6153 941 4.