There a several definitions of Symbolism, but all are keen to point out that Symbolist visual arts don’t depict what you see in the physical world, but images of an alternative reality. This would appear to rule out the painting of representational portraits, but this week’s Symbolist, Edmond Aman-Jean (1858–1936), specialised in them.
Aman-Jean was born not far from Paris in 1858, and grew up during the early years of Impressionism. He was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he worked in the studio of Henri Lehmann. His fellow pupils there included Georges Seurat, Alphonse Osbert and Alexandre Séon, with whom he remained friends thereafter. Although he didn’t win the Prix de Rome, he was awarded support to travel to Italy in 1886, where he was apparently most interested in the masters.
Saint Genevieve Before Paris (1885) is an impressive painting from Aman-Jean’s early career. It shows the patron saint of Paris, Genevieve, who defended the city from Attila’s attack in 451, standing on the bank of the River Seine, with Notre Dame cathedral behind her ornate halo. She is cradling in her hands a silver sailing ship, the city’s emblem which appears on its flag and coat of arms, and dates back to 1358. However, the city seen in the twilight behind her is decidedly contemporary, including the prominent bridge and the buildings rising above its quays.
In his early career, Aman-Jean worked as an assistant to Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, alongside Georges Seurat. They both learned to paint murals, helping Puvis de Chavannes on some of his large projects.
Aman-Jean’s portrait of Paul Verlaine (1892) was painted while the poet was convalescing with syphilis in Paris, at a time when he was slowly succumbing to its consequences, and his addiction to absinthe. Verlaine expressed his appreciation by dedicating a sonnet to Aman-Jean, and they remained friends for the following four years, until Verlaine’s death in 1896 at the age of only 51.
In the early 1890s, Aman-Jean exhibited at the Salon de la Rose+Croix run by Joséphin Péladan in Paris, quite probably the first in 1892.
This full-length portrait of a Young Woman with a Peacock from 1895 is set on the green inside what looks like an old castle. Peacocks are symbolically rich: the birds associated with the goddess Juno, they commonly refer to beauty to the point of vanity. There is an unusual contrast between the woman’s dress, which is decorated with flowers, and the eyes of the peacock’s plumage, which according to myth are the eyes of Argus, plucked from his severed head by Juno. This was exhibited at the Salon in 1895.
In February 1896, Aman-Jean was among those who exhibited with les artistes de l’âme (Artists of the Soul) in the lobby of the Théâtre de la Bodinière in Paris. Other noted Symbolists who had formed this breakaway movement included Carlos Schwabe, Alphonse Osbert 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.
His Woman in Pink from about 1900 forms a diagonal from upper left to lower right. She sits amid an almost abstract landscape of wavelike scarlet forms.
Also painted in about 1900, this pastoral landscape of Hesiod Listening to the Inspirations of the Muse shows a thoroughly Symbolist motif. Hesiod is thought to have been a contemporary of Homer, living near Mount Helicon in Greece around 750-650 BCE. He is credited with being the earliest written poet in the European tradition, and is seen here holding his lyre, the badge of a poet of that time, in the company of a white-winged angel, his muse and inspiration. These were themes common in the paintings of the pre-Symbolist Gustave Moreau.
From the early years of the twentieth century, Aman-Jean’s surviving works are almost exclusively portraits of beautiful young women, such as this Woman with Glove from about 1900-02. These are constructed using regular patterns of marks, which give the image a dreamlike quality.
Young Woman (Natalie Clifford Barney) from about 1902 is believed to be a portrait of this American writer, who would have been about twenty-five at the time. The daughter of the painter Alice Pike Barney, she was openly lesbian, and lived much of her life in Paris, where she died in 1972. For over sixty years, she held a literary salon in her home in the city, and was highly influential in arts circles.
Confidence (1903) refers of course to these two women sharing a secret, amid a vaguely wooded landscape. The woman seated on the bench seems forlorn at what she is being told, and has dropped a red rose from her left hand, suggesting that she is rapidly falling out of love with the person her friend is telling her about.