Émile BERNARD | Symbolist self-portrait (Vision) [Autoportrait symbolique (Vision)]

Émile BERNARD
France 1868 – 1941

Symbolist self-portrait (Vision)
[Autoportrait symbolique (Vision)]
1891
oil on canvas
canvas 81.0 (h) x 60.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 2008
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

In a highly populated self-portrait, Bernard depicts himself at the bottom of the canvas. He bends forward and glances sideways with a background of naked women and paired lovers. Centred at the top is a depiction of the Veil of Veronica, a medieval Catholic relic of the visage of Christ on his way to Calvary and crucifixion. The painter portrays himself in browns, blues and pale flesh, while the phantoms of his imagination are rendered in heated tones of orange and salmon pink. After his experimental essays into Pointillism, his invention of Cloisonnism with Louis Anquetin, and his development of Synthetism with Gauguin, Bernard now looked to a more overt Symbolism. In 1892 he was to join Khnopff, Ferdinand Hodler and Vallotton, among others, in the Salon de la Rose + Croix—an occult and fervently Roman Catholic group seeking to inject Christian religion as the basis of cultural and aesthetic
life in modern France.

1891, however, marked Bernard’s final break with Gauguin. In an important essay published that year, Bernard’s friend Albert Aurier, the poet and art critic, championed Gauguin as the leader of the avant-garde in painting.1 Already unhappy at the loss of his girlfriend Charlotte Buisse,2 Bernard (only twenty-three years old) wished to assert his primacy in the artistic realm. Anxious about his reputation, and fearful of being overtaken by the older artist as the originator of modern Symbolism, he painted this vision as an overt claim to the style. Instead of the more characteristic self-representations as a painter in front of his canvases, Bernard portrays his creations as equal to reality.

After an argument with Gauguin at his Drouot sale in February 1891, the two men never communicated again. Bernard began to sign his letters ‘Vostre fraire en J. Christus’3, and increasingly painted religious subjects. Symbolist self-portrait (Vision) seems a more personal working out of the contradictions of the bourgeois artist and the Symbolist believer in the occult, as well as a realisation in paint of the tension between the pleasures of the body and the salvation of the spirit. The violence of the palette may refer to the non-naturalistic bright red field used by Gauguin in Vision of the sermon (Jacob wrestling with the angel) 1888,4 never duly acknowledged, in Bernard’s eyes, as being inspired by his own painting Breton women in the meadow 18885. The anxious young painter seems haunted by his dreams, his God and his art.

Christine Dixon

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

  1. ‘Gauguin: le symbolisme en peinture’, Mercure de France, March 1891, quoted in Jane Turner (ed.), The dictionary of art, vol. 2, London: Macmillan 1996, p. 732.
  2. Mary Anne Stevens, ‘Chronology’, in Emile Bernard 1868–1941,
    a pioneer of modern art, Zwolle: Waanders Verlag 1990, p. 99.
  3. ‘Your brother in J. Christ’, Stevens, p. 213.
  4. Alexander Sturgis, Rupert Christiansen, Lois Oliver et al., Rebels and martyrs: the image of the artist in the nineteenth century, London: National Gallery Company 2006, p. 152. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.
  5. Le pardon de Pont-Aven. Private collection.