On this day, 4 February, a century ago, the famous Swiss painter and illustrator Eugène Burnand (1850–1921) died. Like so many of the artists that I feature here, he and his work were largely forgotten during the twentieth century, but in his heyday he painted prolifically for the millions across Europe who were able to see his work in periodicals and books. For many who lived before the First World War, it was his paintings which first showed them rural life high among the Alpine meadows.
Burnand was born into a prosperous family in the predominantly French-speaking town of Moudon in the west of Switzerland. He initially trained in architecture in Zurich before realising that he wanted to paint, then studied in Geneva and Paris. In the latter city, in 1872, he gained a place at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he worked in the workshop of Jean-Léon Gérôme, the great realist history painter. He was fortunate enough to travel widely in his student days, visiting Florence and Rome, before he married a member of the artistic Girardet family, and settled in Versailles, not far from Paris.
In the 1870s he became fond of the south of France, Provence, where he painted this Herd of Cattle Beside the Sea in 1878. It’s a thoroughly Realist depiction of quite a popular theme in landscape painting, with very gentle looseness in the clouds.
This painting of a rural horse-drawn Fire Engine from 1879 combines a detailed landscape with mixed action. The pair riding the horses are whipping their team on at great speed, while the labourers riding on the cart appear almost unmoved as they stare into the distance, presumably at the fire. Burnand has taken care in his rendering of the wheel spokes in rapid motion, which may have been influenced by photography.
Painted in 1880, his Gleaners harks back to many painting by Jean-François Millet, Jules Breton and Léon Lhermitte, although here they are set in high Alpine meadows, and their gleanings look meagre indeed.
Burnand’s magnificent painting of Bull in the Alps from 1884 is both impressive and fascinating for his use of optical effects and extreme aerial perspective. Not only are there marked contrasts between the foreground and background in terms of chroma, hue and lightness, but Burnand has used defocussing in a photographic manner. The crisp edges of the bull stand proud of the softer edges and forms in the mountains behind. His edge hierarchy is sharpest for the bull’s head, and softest in the most distant mountain. That’s not something that he’s likely to have learned from Gérôme.
That year, Burnand illustrated the epic poem Mireille, by Frédéric Mistral, which brought him to the attention of a much wider public. He then moved into the city of Paris, returning to Switzerland in 1892. That decade he concentrated more on religious works.
Perhaps his most successful painting was The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Tomb on the Morning of the Resurrection from 1898, which is now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Their faces and hands tell so much, which is quite a surprise from an artist who had concentrated on landscapes.
Homecoming (1900) is a subtle retelling of the return of the prodigal son, and a precursor to his late series of paintings of parables.
Burnand started work on The High Priest’s Prayer when he stayed in Florence in 1900. He subsequently changed the head of Christ several times before its completion in 1918. In 1903, he moved back to Switzerland, where he lived in the country near to Neuchatêl and worked on a series of paintings to illustrate thirty-two parables of Jesus Christ, which was published in several editions in three languages between 1908-48, and his work is still being reproduced from then.
Although he remained based in Paris from 1907, he spent the years of the Great War in Switzerland, where he continued to paint predominantly religious works.
In 1915, Burnand painted his last major work, Ploughing in the Jorat, but the first version was destroyed by fire. This second version was completed the following year. This wide-screen pastoral landscape contains a patchwork of villages and farmland between forested hills rising above 700 metres, and was near where the artist lived. The billowing cumulus clouds have a rhythm which suggests influence by Ferdinand Hodler.
Then in 1917, he set out on his last big project, making pastel paintings of those who returned from the Great War. In all, he made 104, covering a wide range of figures from different countries around the world. Following exhibitions in Paris, they were published as a book in 1922, and the majority are now in the museum of the Legion of Honour in Paris.
Eugène Burnand died on 4 February 1921.