In the few years before the twentieth century, Henri Martin had dazzled viewers of his easel paintings with the unusual combination of landscapes and Symbolist motifs rendered in his unique Divisionist style. Thanks perhaps to his former teacher Jean-Paul Laurens, and his own recognition at the Exposition Universelle of 1900, Martin received several commissions to paint large works for public buildings, including the Sorbonne in Paris (1908), City Hall in Paris, a room in the Élysée Palace (1908), and the French National Council of State Chamber (1914-22) in the Palais-Royal. The last are particularly impressive, and difficult to photograph.
His startling Profil au voile (Veiled Profile) (1902) has very different textures in its different surfaces.
During the first decade of the twentieth century, Martin painted a series of very large canvases for the Capitole de Toulouse, a palatial city hall which had been extensively redesigned in the nineteenth century. Here I show two of its most impressive paintings.
Martin painted Summer, or Mowers in 1903, a work which must be one of the largest surviving Symbolist paintings. Several small clusters of men are cutting the hay in this meadow with their scythes, as three young women are dancing in a ring on the bed of flowers, and another sits nursing an infant. As the detail below reveals, the whole image has been built from Martin’s fine strokes of rich colour, to make the view shimmer in the late afternoon sunlight.
Then in 1906 Martin accompanied it with The Banks of the Garonne, Walkers or Dreamers, a view of the river running through his native city of Toulouse. The figures on promenade form an odd collection. From the left, they are
- Gilbert Martin, eldest son of the artist,
- René Martin, the other son of the artist,
- Bellery-Desfontaine, a local decorator and painter,
- Jean-Paul Laurens, Martin’s teacher, who came from near Toulouse,
- William Viénot,
- Henri Marre, a painter,
- Marie Martin, the artist’s wife,
- René Martin a second time,
- an unknown man,
- Emilio Boggio, a Venezuelan painter,
- Jean Jaurès, a Socialist politician who was assassinated in Paris in 1914.
Martin had already fallen in love with the deep countryside near the river Lot at Labastide-du-Vert, to the north of the city of Toulouse, in the southwest of France. Visits there resulted in landscapes such as his View of Labastide-du-Vert (1910). When the First World War broke out in 1914, he moved there from Paris, and there he remained for the next four years.
Thatched Cottages in Spring is another of his landscapes from this area, painted in the same year.
In this same period, Martin painted Paris Roofs Under the Snow (c 1910), reminiscent of the classically Impressionist view of the capital, View of Roofs (Effect of Snow) painted by Gustave Caillebotte in 1878.
Although he continued to paint in other genres still, in the period between the wars he painted many views of Labastide, including The Bridge at Labastide-du-Vert (c 1920).
Martin also travelled to the French Mediterranean coast near the Spanish border, where he painted Boats at Collioure in about 1920.
Probably the last of his major public commissions, The Memorial (1932) is a triptych with a single continuous scene, which Martin painted for the town of Cahors in southwest France.
Study for Les Champs Elysées (1939) shows how he continued to use fine brushstrokes long after Neo-Impressionism had vanished. That same year, he finally retired to Labastide-du-Vert, where he died in 1943.
The paintings of Henri Martin are a well-kept secret. Sometimes criticised for not being particularly innovative or original, I hope these examples have shown otherwise.
The largest public collection is in the town of Cahors, with its superb mediaeval bridge, not far from Martin’s favourite Labastide-du-Vert. At the moment, the museum is closed for refurbishment. When it re-opens, I think it will be well worth a visit.
Wikipedia (in French).