29. The education of Emile Bernard
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
Emile Bernard, who would become one of Gauguin's closest painting partners, enrolled at the Ecole des arts décoratifs on Thursday, October 28, 1880. He was all of 12 years old--12 and a half, because his birthday was in April.
Emile-Henri had been born in Lille in 1868 to Emile-Ernest Bernard and Héloïse-Henriette Bodin. The family lived in a comfortable house across a narrow street from the parish church. Lille was a growing textile center, and Emile-Ernest was a textile merchant. He went bankrupt in the economic collapse of the Franco-Prussian war and had to take a job as a traveling salesman. The family moved around for the next few years, with young Emile living sometimes with his parents, sometimes with his grandparents. Emile-Ernest was hired to direct the Paris branch of a textile company in 1878. Their finances stable again, the family set themselves up in an apartment at 85, boulevard Voltaire, a six-story building built with wrought-iron balconies and a mansard roof. Young Emile's maternal grandmother persuaded his parents to allow him to take drawing classes.
The concrete information in that paragraph came from digitized archives; the more general, from an assortment of exhibition catalogues. Bernard's artistic beginnings are hard to pin down partially because later in life he was not a reliable narrator. A chronology developed in conjunction with a 1990 retrospective exhibition of Bernard's work begins with a disclaimer:
Emile Bernard is not noted for his accuracy in the dating of events either in his own autobiographical writings or in articles recounting certain specific phases or artistic associations in his life and career...any material, be it published or unpublished, should be treated with circumspection.
I am confident about his enrollment in October 1880 because I came across it while I was looking for something else, at the Archives nationales in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, in January 2018. The school kept a register in which the fonctionnaire on duty dutifully inscribed the name, birth date, birthplace, occupation, and address of each student. In the last column, each student signed his name. On October 28, 1880, five new students signed in: Emile Toulouse, Lucien Hirtz, Paul Dechassat, François Lavéant, and, the last one, student number 441, Emile Bernard. The fonctionnaire entered that young Bernard had been born in Lille, in the département du Nord, on April 28, 1868, that he was a student at the Ecole Commerciale St Paul, living with his father, a businessman, at 85 Boulevard Voltaire.
Archives nationales AJ/53/174 p. 171 (The blurry image is the best I can do, but you can see for yourself at the link.)
And Emile Bernard signed his name, twice for good measure:
This record we don't have to treat with circumspection; it was created long before this 12 year old boy ever decided to muddle the details of his life, and created by an impartial third party. Another impartial third party noted in the left margin, on the following April 8, that Bernard had been stricken from the list of students. Expelled. We don't know why.
It was not the last time that Bernard would be expelled.
Three years later, Bernard enrolled at the considerably more informal Atelier Cormon. Beginning in the 1880s, successful artists in Paris began to open their own private schools. Students could take informal classes there and earn, not a certificate, but the respect (or derision) of their peers. Time spent painting in these informal academies--like the Colarossi, Julian, Cormon, and others--allowed young painters to build both their skills and a network.
Fernand Cormon (1845-1924) was an academic painter whose work is difficult to find now--but which earned him both renown and a good living in his prime. His teaching studio was on the Boulevard de Clichy, at the base of Montmartre and the center of the avant-garde art world. For a fee, admitted students could work at their easels in the studio and Cormon would critique their work when he stopped in. It was both informal and strictly regulated: hours were irregular, and Cormon only visited every few days, but students themselves policed each others' work. Most of them were young, almost all of them were French. Most had had some formal training; most were from well-to-do families. Cormon accepted Bernard on the basis of his portfolio--the young man had learned basics at the Ecole des arts décoratifs--and because his family agreed to pay the fees.
When Bernard entered the studio, he met Charles Laval (1862-1894), Louis Anquetin (1861-1932) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). They sketched together; they painted together; they explored nightclubs and brothels together. They bought their supplies from Tanguy's store. They built a community or, maybe better, a network, of aspiring artists. Not a community, perhaps, because a community implies mutual care; it implies witnessing each other's weddings and standing as godparents to each other's children. These painters were more professional colleagues and artistic duelers than friends, each competing with the other while they constantly copied and refined each other's styles into what would be the next big thing. This network would have an enormous impact on their future work and future careers--and on those of Paul Gauguin and Louis Roy.
But from early spring 1886 Bernard's affiliation with Cormon would cease. Some sources say it was due to his "lack of discipline," some that it was due to his "progressive ideas," some that it was due to his "insubordinate behavior." Bernard told the story of his time as Cormon's student this way in a 1903 article:
I became friends with Anquetin and [Toulouse-]Lautrec, and they introduced me to the Louvre and to the Impressionists. We were entranced by Claude Monet and Renoir, moved by Vélasquez, and I was dismissed by the professor [emphasis original] for having painted according to other methods than his own.
There was a huge blow up back at 85, boulevard Voltaire, when Emile mentioned the news. The slouchy teenager had been expelled from the school of a respectable, respected, successful artist. That his son wanted to be an artist was already a bitter pill for the practical Emile-Ernest Bernard, who could remember bankruptcy and creditors, debts and losses. But now his son was scoffing at the stolid, stable, bourgeois careers of academic artists. Emile-Ernest grabbed young Emile's portfolio and threw it into the fireplace, sending his sketches of Vélasquez up in smoke. Emile-Henri, matching drama for drama, slammed out of the apartment and down the stairs, out into the street and back to the cafés where his disreputable artist friends were carousing.
It was a few weeks before his 18th birthday. Within days, he left Paris to wander the wilds of Brittany with his paint box. He met Paul Gauguin at the Pension Gloanec four months later, and set in motion the chain of events that would bring Flowers and Fruit into existence.