Émile BERNARD | Madeleine in the Bois d'Amour (Portrait of my sister) [Madeleine au Bois d'Amour (Portrait de ma soeur)]

France 1868 – 1941

Madeleine in the Bois d'Amour (Portrait of my sister)
[Madeleine au Bois d'Amour (Portrait de ma soeur)]
oil on canvas
canvas 138.0 (h) x 163.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1977
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

In 1888 Sérusier painted the now famous but tiny painting L’Aven au Bois d’Amour—literally The Aven in the woods of love. (The Aven is the river running through Pont-Aven in Brittany.) The work was later rechristened The talisman by the group of artists—former friends from the Académie Julian—who called themselves the Nabis and who gathered around the small Breton village. These painters, who included Sérusier, Bonnard, Ranson and Denis amongst others, sought to define and clarify the new art form being practised by Gauguin and Bernard, called Synthetism. Serusier’s The talisman, the Aven at the Bois d’Amour became literally the talisman of the Nabis group.

Bernard’s treatment of the same river and wood setting which Sérusier had depicted, seen here, is far less audacious than Sérusier’s. It is also one of his least characteristic paintings from this period. It does not show the classic features of Cloisonnism (the partitioning of flat areas of heightened colour by the use of black lines) that characterises other works of his—the wonderful The harvest, from the same year, for example. Instead, its heritage seems to be some more Romantic Symbolist tradition. The overly elongated form of Bernard’s seventeen-year-old sister Madeleine hovers awkwardly in the foreground, as if added to an already completed landscape. In Madeleine’s prone figure there are also echoes of an earlier tradition which, although its aesthetic agenda was quite different, examined the often morbid psychopathology of female romantic longing—that of the English Pre-Raphaelites. There is, for example, the odd disjunction between Madeleine’s very alive and clearly self-consciously posed reverie at one extreme of the painting, and the unnatural cadaver-like arrangement of her feet at the other; note also the awkward, funereal placement of her pale white hand at her waist.

The image is autobiographical. While in part homage to Madeleine, Bernard had met up with Gauguin again in Pont-Aven in the summer of 1888 and the latter had fallen in love with Madeleine. The reductive treatment of the landscape, in which vertical and horizontal elements are carefully orchestrated against an essentially flat plane, recalls the work of Puvis, while the reflections in the water prefigure elements of Art Nouveau. It is also useful to compare this strangely unsettling work with the heavily Symbolist-influenced Landscape with green trees by Denis.

Mark Henshaw

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009