My Symbolist painter of the week is Alphonse Osbert (1857–1939), who in his day was in the avant garde, and painted some of the best exanples of pure Symbolist art from the height of the movement. Sadly, his work is largely forgotten now, but if you were to visit the thermal baths at Vichy in France, you’ll see some even better examples than the easel paintings I have been able to locate.
Osbert was born in Paris in 1857, and trained at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in the city, where he worked in the studios of Henri Lehmann, Fernand Cormon and Léon Bonnat. Initially, his style was influenced by Spanish old masters and was Naturalist, as was all the rage at the time. During the mid 1880s he adopted more progressive Post-Impressionist styles, at one stage experimenting with Divisionist or ‘Pointillist’ technique thanks to his friendship with Georges Seurat, who became a friend when they were pupils together.
His most significant influence, though, was Symbolism, as expressed in the paintings of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and he soon abandoned painting real world scenes in pursuit of deeper meaning.
Osbert painted this unusual portrait of the ancient Greek poet Sappho in 1888, shortly after he had come under the influence of Puvis de Chavannes. It avoids any narrative, and establishes his approach to Symbolism, with a very constrained palette, simplified earth forms, and a rising or setting sun or moon. This was a time when Sappho was a frequent motif, particularly in the paintings of Gustave Moreau, a major influence on Symbolism.
Between 1892-96, Osbert exhibited in the Salon de la Rose+Croix, the leading platform for Symbolist artists of the time.
Without knowing who the figure is, you might mistake this for a painting of Joan of Arc, but it’s Osbert’s 1892 Vision of Saint Genevieve. The patron saint of the city of Paris, Genevieve had similarly humble origins as a peasant girl in Nanterre who experienced frequent visions, leading her to save the city from Attila’s attack in 451. Osbert limits his colours to blue and green, which have symbolic associations with melancholy and hope respectively.
This is probably Osbert’s best-known work, and was first exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1892, again at the second Salon de la Rose+Croix the following year, and featured in a travelling exhibition of Symbolist art in the mid-1970s.
His Reverie in the Night from 1895 combines similar elements in a painting of profound tranquillity, which defies any detailed reading, just as Osbert wished.
In February 1896, Osbert was among those who exhibited with les artistes de l’âme (Artists of the Soul) in the lobby of Théâtre de la Bodinière in Paris. Other noted Symbolists who formed this breakaway movement included Carlos Schwabe, Edmond Aman-Jean and Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer. Although it attracted the attention of the critics of the day, its impact was less than that of the Salon de la Rose+Croix.
The Solitude of Christ (1897) introduces a sharp colour contrast with the moon on the horizon. There are still traces of his earlier Pointillist technique in the sky above the horizon.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Osbert completed a series of commissions for large murals, including at least two for the thermal baths in Vichy.
Sleeping Nymph (1905) brings a little more background detail, and the golden hair and lyre of the nymph, but has even more restricted use of colour.
Osbert’s later paintings cautiously added more detail and slightly less severe palettes, as in Ancient Evening from 1908.
Lyricism in the Forest (1910) has an even richer palette, and looks much more representational, although his figures remain statuesque.
Painted in 1918, at the end of the Great War, The Muse at Sunrise has been further liberated to show the effects of the dawn light on the tree canopy and textured bark.
His late painting of Evening Harmony on the Sea from 1930 is suggestive of Sappho, although these rocks aren’t intended to represent the Leucadian Cliff from which she is reputed to have thrown herself.
Alphonse Osbert died in Paris in 1939, just a few weeks before the start of the Second World War.