Émile BERNARD | Bathers with red cow [Baigneuses à la vache rouge]

France 1868 – 1941

Bathers with red cow
[Baigneuses à la vache rouge]
oil on canvas
canvas 92.5 (h) x 72.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of Christian de Galèa 1984
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Bernard, who came from a bourgeois family, was six when the first Impressionist exhibition was held in 1874 and eighteen when the last was held in 1886, the same year he was thrown out of the Atelier Cormon for unruly behaviour. On a walking tour of Brittany and Normandy he met Gauguin—first in 1886 and then again, in Pont-Aven, in 1888.

Bernard had already rejected the plein-air techniques of the Impressionists by the time he had left Cormon’s studio. He would, however, along with his newfound friend Gauguin, appropriate the use of pure colour. But instead of molecularising colour in the way the Pointillists had, he chose to use it as a compositional device, using flat planes of largely uninflected colour in a lyrical manner, rather than attempting a realistic rendering of the subject. This approach had its antecedents in late medieval and early Renaissance frescoes, and the ecclesiastical use of stained glass: in 1888 the critic Edouard Dujardin would coin the term Cloisonnism to describe what both Gauguin and Bernard were doing.

While Bernard may have rejected his Impressionist precursors, we can see, however, in Bathers with red cow the influence of Cézanne. The latter artist has become famous for the number of works he devoted to bathers, and it is not difficult to see that the young Bernard’s painting consists essentially of a series of floating figure studies whose rhythmical arrangement is given precedence over any felicity to perspective. Ironically, while he may have been thrown out of the Atelier Cormon, we can also see in this work the extension of the academic exercises he had found so tedious the year before.

For someone so young, this is already a bravura work. We can see the eighteen-year-old’s emerging confidence in the way the red cow’s head has literally been cut off—the painting was in fact sectioned down from a larger work. There is an element of subversive comedy in the way in which the groups of naked women are counterposed against this one solitary, partially depicted animal. Just how quickly Bernard’s compositional sophistication was growing can be seen by comparing this work with the more radically clarified compositional skill of his painting The harvest of the following year.

Bernard claimed it was he who introduced Gauguin to the Synthetist manner of painting, in which the aim of a work of art was not the realistic representation of a subject, but a combination of the subject matter and of the artist’s emotional response to it. Form and colour were the means by which this synthesis took place. Two years after painting this work, Bernard would return to Paris where, with Gauguin and other Pont-Aven artists, he would participate in the first Groupe Impressionniste et Synthétiste exhibition at the Cafe Volpini.

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