Émile Bernard was a pivotal figure during the transition from Impressionism to a more personal and expressive art. Born in Lille, France in 1868, Bernard developed a taste for painting at a young age. In his youth he attended the École des Arts Décoratifs, and in 1884, began working at the Atelier Cormon where he met and began working with Toulouse-Lautrec, Louis Anquetin and Vincent Van Gogh. From the very beginning, Bernard demonstrated a strong independent streak. He experimented with Impressionist and Pointillist colour theory in direct opposition to his master’s academic teaching, until an argument with Fernand Cormon led to his expulsion from the studio in 1886.
Émile Bernard then set off for Pont-Aven in Brittany, an area that attracted many academic and innovative painters at that time. There, Bernard bagan experimenting with Symbolism. He painted flat areas of colour and bold outlines, a technique derived from his study of medieval stained glass windows. Symbolism was a movement that his colleague Paul Gauguin, influenced by Japanese prints, also embraced. It was also tied to a new trend which Bernard and Gauguin called Synthesism, a technique of reducing forms to their essential appearances. Today it is undeniable that both artists had an influence on each other. The painter Jan Verkade said of the two artists: “they were each pupil and master to each other”.
Well connected as he was, Bernard began organizing exhibitions. In 1893 he instigated the first exhibition of painting by Gauguin and Cezanne, whose genius Bernard immediately recognized, and quickly found himself at the center of a movement that was going to overturn the art world until the dawn of the twentieth century. His correspondence with Gauguin, Redon and Van Gogh became immediately of interest, and his conversations with Cezanne were published. Much to his friends’ dismay, Bernard eventually abandoned many of his early ideas, inspiring Cezanne to write: “he’s completely turned his back on the ideas he has developed in his writing”. Bernard then began traveling to the Orient and Egypt, and painted for the rest of his life in a more traditional manner, attempting perhaps to rediscover the example set out by the masters of the Renaissance.
Émile Bernard, who lived for a number of years in Egypt returned to Paris regularly, and did visit Pont-Aven for one last time before returning to his studio in Bourbon where he died in 1941.