In January, 2004, the history teacher at
Buxton School passed an obscure painting around the classroom.
Its subject was Etretat, a small town in the region of
Haute-Normandie, France. It was an oil painting on artboard,
about 12 x 8 inches, with a nice frame. The only identifying marks were a
title and signature in the corner:
Our task was to find out the value of this painting.
Unlike most paintings that we had seen in the Advanced European Studies
classroom, Etretat did not derive its value from authenticity
or notoriety. The painter, Georges Charpentier, is better known for
his publishing house than his paintings. Presumably, the only existing
of the painting are the scanned images of it that Bradford Davis, the teacher,
had posted online and any printouts of those images. It has no provenance, its place as
a historical document is unclear, and if it happens to fit some rich and
eccentric art collector's eclectic tastes then he certainly will not find
it in the unlisted "largest collection of the worst art" in
North Pownal, Vermont.
Nonetheless, the painting is rather compelling.
When asked what about it appealed to her, Elizabeth Davis, the wife to Brad,
said, "I like the delicacy of it." It certainly does feel
delicate. The academic art of the time (exemplified by
Adolphe-William Bouguereau's Temptation, according to Michael Delahunt's
ArtLex Art Dictionary online) was focused on realistic modeling of figures
and faithfulness to the physicality of classical and
romantic images. Etretat, in contrast, feels flat
and brittle. It was painted in only a few colors, in broad strokes,
with thin black outlines. The outlines do not precisely
delimit the regions of color that they border: There is no illusion
of the figures delimited being really discrete. By avoiding making
its subjects independently appraisable, Charpentier was contradicting
the traditional role of oil painting as described by John Berger in
Ways of Seeing (page 87): "Oil painting did to
appearances what capital did to social relations,"
writes Berger. "It reduced everything to the equality of objects.
Everything became exchangeable because everything was a commodity."
The figures in Etretat instead seem to be almost icons.
They are simple, consistent images that establish the
characters in an imagined reality that is only alluded to.
... the future belongs to the subjective world.
Odilon Redon, The Red Boat [source]
Georges Charpentier was born in the middle of the nineteenth
century. Early on, he wanted to become a painter like many in his
family, but when he inherited his father's
very important and successful publishing
house, he resigned himself to managing it. Surrounded by brilliant
intellectuals and artists, he occupied his more
humble role admirably.
At the age of twenty five, he married a woman
who established his role in the intellectual and artistic community
firmly. She hosted salons at their mansion with intellectuals,
artists, and political figures that revived the feeling of the great
salons of the past. She founded a newspaper published by Georges,
la Vie Moderne, which became the mouthpiece of the
impressionist and art nouveau movements. Georges's
friends and clients (including Renoir,
Zola, Flaubert, and
Maupassant) regularly participated in Mme. Charpentier's
salons. In this way, though he was not a professional painter,
M. Charpentier was very much a part of their circle.
The subject matter of the painting becomes slightly clearer with
Georges's role in artistic circles in mind. It is Etretat,
the subject of numerous great studies in light and shape, with its
awesome cliffs bordering the English Channel. (Claude Monet's
Cliffs at Etretat on display at the
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, for example, is
a brilliant exercise in the use of color to capture the
impression of partaking of such beauty.) A humble shepherd
in a raincoat with his sheepdog and sheep gazes at these cliffs,
though they do not approach the majesty of these same cliffs from the
usual angle. It is a rainy day in a green pasture, and the reflections
in the mud at the shepherd's feet rival the beauty of the glistening
waters of the English Channel. A mere editor, in his humble way,
accesses a world of beauty thought to be only accessible to great
painters. "Assumptions concerning: Beauty / Truth / Genius"
(Ways of Seeing, page 11, on the mystification of
art appreciation) have been refuted, and replaced with the ideas behind
a more rich and humble life.
"What I liked about the painting is that it is not of
the standard scene," Brad said when asked why he chose to buy
this painting in particular. Perhaps it would be pertinent to
recount the full story of his choice to buy it here: Elizabeth Davis's
birthday was approaching, and Brad wanted to give her a painting as a
present. He was in a small art gallery in Boulogne, France, searching
for the best painting that he could buy for under 400 US dollars. Surrounded
by masterpieces from the great artistic movements, he chose
this small amateur painting of a shepherd and sheep with their back to
the viewer. Many years before, Brad had chosen to sacrifice the luxuries of
a potential career as a college professor to
join Beth in teaching at the boarding school he had attended
as a child. It was an extremely demanding job that paid less than
minimum wage. Its benefits were in the humble pleasures of teaching and
befriending extremely loyal students, in community living in a rural
paradise, and in having a real effect on the course of the lives of the
students and the life of the school. It is telling that while at Buxton
School Brad and Beth trained their border collies to herd sheep, and so
had a brief foray into the pastoral life. It may be that Brad chose
Etretat in part because of its unique approach to depicting
their planned vacation destination, but the more lasting message of the
painting is one of thanks. Brad, praising a humble, natural life with
responsibility towards instead of an ownership of those things one loves,
was telling Beth that he appreciated the life to which she had led him.
The minute you give something a mat you give it an authority
it didn't have before.
Brad Davis paid more than 400 dollars for this painting. He actually
paid 625 dollars after a bidding war that he says led him to overpay, but
it was "worth it to me," he said. He has repeatedly said that
he paid more than the painting was worth, but when members of the senior
class jokingly asked if he would sell it to them were they to pool together
700 dollars, he said that it was "not enough profit margin." So
Brad thinks that the market value is less than 625 dollars, and that the
value to him is greater than 700.
Between 1970 and 1980, there were two auctions of paintings by Georges
Charpentier listed in the Auction Prices of 19th Century Artists
(volume 1, page 203). One was a classical painting
of David and Goliath, about 8 x 4 feet, which sold for 612 dollars. The
other was a seascape of the Port de Dieppe, about 22 x 18 inches, which
sold for 609 dollars. Since both were larger paintings than
Etretat, it makes sense that the market value of
Etretat should be less than 600 dollars. The market value is,
however, unimportant, because Beth does not plan to sell the painting. The value to her, enhanced by her love of sheep, her memories of
Etretat, and her experience at Buxton,
Sources on Georges Charpentier
- Hislop, Richard (ed.)
Auction Prices of 19th
Century Artists. Volume I: A—K. Art Sales Index Ltd, England:
1982. 1970-1980. pp9, 203.
From the library of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.
- Provost et D'Amat (eds.)
Dictionnaire de Biographie Française.
Tome Huitième: Cayron—Cléry.
Paris-VI. Librarie Letouzey et Ané, 1959. pp634-5. (Clark Art Library)
- Michel, Robida.
Le Salon Charpentier et les impressionistes.
La Bibliothèque Des Arts, Paris: 1958. pp16-66. (Clark Art Library)
- Renoir, Jean. Renoir, My Father.
New York Review Books, New York: 2001. pp130-133.
(Milne Public Library, Williamstown).
Art in the fin de siècle
- Becket, Sister Wendy and Wright, Patricia.
The Story of Painting Dorling Kindersley, London: 1994. p327.
(Bradford Davis's library at Buxton)
- Delahunt, Michael. The ArtLex Art Dictionary
- Guillou, Jean-François. Great Painters of the World.
translated by Judith Judith Hayward. SMITHMARK Publishers, Inc.,
New York: 1993. pp194-200. (Brad's library)
- Hardy, William. A Guide to Art Nouveau Style.
Chartwell Books, Inc., Secaucus, New Jersey: 1987.
(Milne Public Library, Williamstown)
- Plazy, Gilles. The History of Art in Pictures.
MetroBooks, New York: 1999. pp132-159.
- The Everything2 Encyclopedia at http://www.everything2.com/.
The geography and artistic history of Etretat
- Enciclopedia Vniversal Ilvstrada Evropeo-Americana.
Tomo XXII: Espasa—Calpe, S.A. Madrid: 1964.
p1242: "Etretat" Geog.
(Clark Art Library)
- Grand Palais (Paris, France).
Méditerranée: de Courbet à Matisse.
Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris:
2000. p21. (Clark Art Library)
- Taylor, John Russel.
Claude Monet: Impressions of France: From Le Havre to Giverny.
Collins & Brown, Great Britian: 1995. pp90-91.
(Clark Art Library)
The history of the painting itself
- Interview with Bradford Davis at 1:44 PM in January 2004.
All quotations of Brad come from this interview except for
"not enough profit margin".
- Informal coversations with Bradford Davis, Elizabeth Davis,
and Althea Bryant.
Ways of Seeing
- Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. The Viking Press,
New York: 1972. (Buxton School Library)
Noded with Mr. Davis's permission.
I had the wrong Charpentier! What I have here makes for a good myth. Perhaps some day I'll find some information on the actual painter. Apologies.