Léon-Augustin L'Hermitte
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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
View of Pont-en-Royan, 1881
Charcoal with erasures on discolored off-white paper
35.6 x 45.2 cm
Charles Emanuel Gift, 1952
WA 1952.57

View of Pont-en-Royan stands a bit apart from the entirety of L’Hermitte’s output, at least insofar as its pictorial subject is concerned, as L’Hermitte gave greatest energy and consideration to the depiction of the peasant at work, like many of his better-known Nineteenth-century Realist counterparts.  Pure renderings of landscapes are to be found infrequently throughout his oeuvre, when compared with the number of studies involving the figure’s presence.  This charcoal drawing was completed in 1881, ostensibly as one of the many sketches for the 1882 oil painting Le Marché de Cauterets and seems to have been a study mainly of the way the light in the Pyrenees Mountains greeted the landscape.

Léon-Augustin L’Hermitte was born in 1844 to a family of peasants in Mont Saint Père, Aisne, France.  It has been estimated by Mary Michele Hamel that before his death in 1925, L’Hermitte completed 200 oil paintings, 300 pastel drawings, 200 charcoal drawings, and many sketches.  These are in addition to the over 1000 drawings and paintings that Hamel has inferred also existed through the readings of sale and auction papers of the time.  He worked in the French realist tradition, valorizing the peasant and his work, the fall and effects of light, and the dignity of the countryside.

Early in his career, he worked as an illustrator, and never had any real want for money.  He exhibited his work at the Salons, throughout his career, almost without interruption, and enjoyed, in part because of his conservative style, a steady audience of buyers.

The drawing is executed on a 27.2 x 46.7 cm piece of taupe laid paper, and is signed L. L’Hermitte at the bottom left.  The drawing came to the Ashmolean under somewhat comical, or perhaps tense, delivery, according to Jon Whiteley’s entry on it in the Ashmolean catalogue: Charles Emanuel owned the drawing, and while having his house remodeled, lent it to the museum for safekeeping.  The museum accepted it accidentally into a collection of drawings which Emanuel had given the museum in 1950, and considered it theirs.  Emanuel later wanted it back, but the Ashmolean wanted to keep it, because it had been formally accepted into the collection, and finally, Emanuel decided to leave it with the collection.

One might consider the scene itself, with a face of granite cliff presiding over a dark and forbidding copse of coniferous trees, and with a bank of villas then crumbling into the incredibly wide and river-like white street, the main subject of the composition, but L’Hermitte’s concern seems rather recording light’s experience on the surface of the landscape, and the way the light moves through the scene to describe receding space.

The cliff, by way of its size, but also because of the beauty of L’Hermitte’s use of the laid paper’s texture to illustrate rock surface, comes very much to the foreground of the picture plane.  This delightful use of space, with the mountains in the logical background, and the range of value being quite compressed, allows through subtle shifts in tone and direction of roughly hatched and carefully blended marks the mountain to come over and impose its primacy over the architecture, which L’Hermitte has left in a strange position, indeed. 

The architecture gives the appearance of something built without internal support or intended use, almost like it was created at the demand of the landscape. At the center of the page, the structures are much lighter in value, and their value, while moving left, comes to be very close to that of the surrounding natural landscape, promoting the feeling of their collapse.  Sharp lines, left unstumped, cut the forms of the buildings free from the landscape, but the only real life they attain is in the black windows, or the place where the natural light refuses to describe the interior. This is the place where the buildings declare their independence from the natural world, and with a momentarily shocking result: strangely enough, the buildings have no usable doors and are thus not only free, but inaccessible. 

That the buildings are without doors seems not a political statement on man’s involvement in the landscape, or a function of shoddy draftsmanship, but rather a relic of L'Hermitte’s academic training under Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran at the École Impériale de Dessin, which began in 1863. Boisbaudran had developed a particular pedagogic method called Memory Drawing, which was intended to develop visual memory, and through using the memory as the point of genesis for the drawing, increase the level of subjectivity attained in the execution of the drawing.  The method did not, however, encourage subjective interpretation of form.  Quite to the contrary, the learning progressed slowly, from copying drawings, then to committing simple images to memory, and attempting to recall them with precision, then finally, with success in the preliminary stages, one was allowed to move to life drawing, and could commit a natural scene to memory, hopefully being able to extract it intact.  One was not allowed to move to the next step before mastering the one preceding it.

This method of drawing succeeded in capturing the “transitory effects of nature” like weather and light, which have a specific existence in time.  This is where the subjectivity of the artist and the need for his skill and accuracy became important.  Strengthened particularly by the Memory Drawing method were the students’ abilities to depict mass, light, shadow, and proportion, and all four of these qualities are expertly executed in View of Pont-en-Royan, so much that the anomalies, like the missing doors, aren’t missed, but do serve as a signpost to finding L'Hermitte’s technique.

The scratchy, erratic mark making among the trees and in the black holes in their grouping work much the way that the windows do in the house: L’Hermitte uses a complete density of value where the light doesn’t fall naturally, and although one knows that such an area never really occurs as absolute black in direct observation, the effect is convincing in creating an extension of space into the unseen and unknowable.  His endeavor to show the movement of light on a form, instead of the form in a pure state makes his entire topographies feel credible; not as a drawing standing in for a landscape, but a Mary Michele Hamel put it, a picture of “earth’s immensity and fruitfulness” or of the “Utopian Promised Land.” L’Hermitte believes in the natural world, the seen world, and in its importance to man, and all of this is relayed in View of Pont-en-Royan.

Jessica Slaven

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