Jacques-Émile Blanche: More than a Good Likeness

Jacques-Émile Blanche was born into a wealthy family of eminent psychiatrists and grew up in Passy near the Bois de Boulogne where his father ran Europe’s most famous and progressive mental health institute. Dr. Blanche was an also a distinguished art collector and counted amongst his friends many prominent figures of the Parisian art world. Jacques-Émile, as an only child (his three siblings all died in either infancy or childhood), would spend his formative years in the presence of painters like Eugène Delacroix and Edgar Degas, and the novelists George Sand and Théophile Gautier, and their conversations and charisma clearly shaped his future career choices and lifelong fascination with celebrity.

Blanche’s schooling too was typically star-studded. In 1873, aged twelve, his English teacher was the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) and his private tutor in the Arts was the author and musician Edmond Maître (1840-98). In the latter, the young Blanche found a kindred spirit, role model, and mentor. The sophisticated and sociable (and, like Blanche, independently wealthy) Maître was an important early supporter of Impressionism positioned at the very centre of the Paris avantgarde, precisely where the young Jacques-Émile Blanche yearned to be.

‘Petite Fille aux Hortensia’ by Jacques-Emile Blanche (1929)
Image courtesy of Christie’s, New York

Maître nurtured his pupil’s artistic ambitions and encouraged him to join the fulltime students of the various Paris academies who spent days and weeks at the Louvre copying the paintings of the Old Masters. Bearing in mind his background and undoubted talent, Blanche could easily have won a place to study at any one of the city’s important schools but, as his diaries show, he was spoilt for choice and stymied by indecision, “Should I enter the École des Beaux-Arts or should I go to the Académie Julian? How can I manage to paint living nude models? What would really suit me best would be to find a painter whom I admire above all else, to whom I could be apprenticed, preparing his colours, helping him at all times, like the true disciple of a Renaissance painter.”. He was young so I think we can forgive him his rather baroque fancies.

In the summer of 1879, Blanche’s mother – by all accounts a haughty woman and certainly an overbearing presence in his life – was overseeing the design of the family’s new house in Dieppe and commissioned Pierre-Auguste Renoir to paint decorative panels for the dining room (her son’s idea!). Hiring Renoir to do a spot of interior decorating sounds extraordinarily extravagant to us today but back in 1879 Renoir was yet to become Renoir and the practise of commissioning artists to paint panels for the home was not uncommon amongst the wealthy of Paris and London. If you have ever wondered what persuaded artists of this period to occasionally choose to paint such tall, narrow pictures the answer was a prestigious commission; the elegant townhouses of the 7th and palatial villas of Kensington were once full of these constituent paintings.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri Gervex, and Édouard Manet, all of whom mentored Blanche.

Having had Renoir installed in the living room the eighteen-year-old Blanche made the most of the opportunity and spent many hours quizzing the painter about his methods and technique. When Jacques-Émile proposed that he officially study with the Impressionist his horrified mother fired off a letter to her husband informing him that she found Renoir, “Scruffy, witless, uncouth, bad-mannered and just plain vulgar.” In Madame Blanche’s opinion, “Jacques can only lose out by taking lessons with him. He is so crazy in his painting, in his conversation, without any education, no doubt very good, but hating anything healthy in life.”

Mme Blanche felt that if her son really must have a drawing master then a more suitable candidate would be the classically trained Henri Gervex (1852-1929), and he was duly engaged. Although renowned for his elegant society portraits Gervex was also an enthusiastic painter of the nude and – no doubt unbeknownst to Mme Blanche – only months earlier had courted controversy when one of his paintings was rejected by the Salon jury on the grounds of immorality. Like his contemporaries Alfred Stevens, John Singer Sargent, and Jean Beraud, Gervex was a transitional painter whose body of work reflected both his academic background and the influence of his many Impressionist friends. Happily, for Jacques-Émile (though less so for his mother) this meant the young wannabe artist was soon introduced to Gervex’s avantgarde circle none of whom had a greater influence upon him than Édouard Manet (1832-1883). One of Manet’s first requests to Blanche was that he demonstrate his abilities as a draftsman by painting a brioche bun. When Blanche handed him his oil sketch of a brioche Manet exclaimed, “Well I never. The boy’s a natural!”.

Although his mother may have been sceptical Jacques-Emile’s father clearly had faith in his son’s talents, and especially in his taste. In 1876 Dr Blanche was on the verge of buying one of Manet’s most famous paintings but backed out of the sale after his wife protested. “I was in discussions with Edouard to buy his ‘Déjeuner sur l’Herbe’ because we have the perfect place for it in our dining-room…” wrote Dr. Blanche to his son “…but your mother was frightened by the nudity. On reflection, she was perhaps right about that; but we should have simply put the painting away for you and you could have had it later, since you like his kind of painting. And I feel maybe you are not wrong.”

Although he missed out on ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe’ by Édouard Manet (1863), Jacques-Émile Blanche’s own art collection was as extensive as it was important and today would have been valued in the hundreds of millions.

In 1881 Jacques-Émile Blanche made his exhibition debut when ‘Une Femme à bord d’un Yacht’ was accepted at the Salon des Artistes Français in Paris. He also made his first visit to London, a city that would become his second home and of which he would paint numerous street scenes (just as Jean Beraud, Luigi Loir, and Eugène Galien-Laloue were then doing in Paris). It was whilst on one of these many sojourns to London that Blanche first met James Whistler and his then studio assistant Walter Sickert, and the three men became great friends. (Although always referred to as a pupil and erstwhile follower of Whistler, Sickert in fact owed a great deal more to Blanche who offered him considerable early support and did more than anyone to progress his career. Unfortunately, as Sickert’s fame reached its peak in the second decade of the 20th century he shed many of his old friends including, and most cruelly, Jacques-Émile Blanche.)

Jacques-Émile Blanche, James Whistler, and Walter Sickert

It was during the busy and increasingly successful period of the mid-1880s that Blanche began a long-term romantic relationship with the Spanish artist Rafael de Ochoa (1822-1890). Unfortunately, outside of his artistic demimonde, Blanche’s homosexuality was still very much ”the love that dare not speak its name” and meant criminal prosecution, jail time, and potential ruin to anyone incautious enough to find themselves publicly outed; as another of his friends was soon to discover.

Blanche first met Oscar Wilde in 1882 and the open secret of the latter’s sexual preferences and not-so-clandestine dalliances must have given Blanche, and the millions of men like him, some optimism that attitudes were changing and that there would soon come a time when gay men (albeit the famous and influential ones) would not need to hide in fear, at least in the great metropolises. Tragically, Wilde’s arrest in London and subsequent conviction for “gross indecency” put an end to that faint hope and, understandably concerned he may be similarly identified, Blanche took the precaution of adopting a familiar disguise. Five months after Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour Jacques-Émile Blanche married his childhood friend Rose Lemoinne whose father was editor of the influential Paris newspaper Journal des Débats; a handy father-in-law to have in your corner should any scurrilous rumours make it to print.

‘Self-Portrait with Raphael de Ochoa’ by Jacques-Émile Blanche (1890)
Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

By the latter half of the 1880s Blanche had found his metier in portraiture. He exhibited in London for the first time in 1887 when he was invited to send a portrait to Whistler’s New English Arts Club. The subject was a young blonde-haired girl and was a favourite of Whistlers. Although he painted many fine pictures of men (invariably drawn from his extensive circle of famous friends) Blanche was perhaps at his best when painting young women and girls. One of his favourite models was his neighbour’s beautiful daughter, Wanda Zielinska. Blanche painted ‘Pouponne’ (Babyface) as she was known on numerous occasions, perhaps the most striking example being ‘Jeune Femme en Blanc’. Painted in 1896, the portrait is currently available to purchase via the Gallery page.

‘Jeune Femme en Blanc’ by Jacques-Émile Blanche (1896)
Now available to purchase via the Gallery page

Unlike the contemporaneous society portraiture of James Jebusa Shannon, George Percy Jacomb-Hood, and Thomas Benjamin Kennington (at least three names were essential if one was to be taken seriously as a portraitist) which was necessarily preoccupied with verité, Blanche – like his friends Whistler and Sickert – aimed to portray more than just a “a good likeness”. What they endeavoured to capture was the personality; the true self of the sitter that lay behind the gentile façade, or as Blanche’s great friend Marcel Proust put it, “their very souls.”

‘Portrait of Marcel Proust’ by Jacques-Émile Blanche (1892)
Image courtesy of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Twelve months previously the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud had opened his clinic in Vienna and soon news of his methods was a fashionable topic of conversation at every Parisian soiree and salon. Freud’s practise of “free association” in which he would encourage his patients to speak openly about their earliest memories and deepest thoughts without censorship or inhibition may have sounded revolutionary to most people but not to Jacques-Émile Blanche; son of the great Dr. Blanche, experimental psychiatrist and “remarkable confessor to the insane”, close friend and contemporary of Jean-Martin Charcot, Freud’s teacher. Blanche Jnr. had spent his childhood listening to his father expound similar theories to those of Dr. Freud, and as a skilful and seductive conversationalist himself there was surely no painter better equipped to coax the inner self from his sitter’s unconscious.

Walter Sickert could make anyone look sinister. His portrait of Blanche, circa 1906
Image courtesy of Tate Britain, London

I have no doubt that Blanche’s disarming congeniality enabled him to reveal the emotional complexion of his subjects by gently peeling away all formality and pretence. I would not be at all surprised to learn that he did not draw anything in the first half hour of a sitting, instead pretending to sketch whilst chatting to his guests like a trusted confidant, putting them at ease and encouraging candid conversation as though they were his patients and he their trusted analyst, transforming what was normally an arduous process – dreaded by all who had sat for an artist before – into a pleasant experience that flew by like an afternoon spent with an old and dear friend.

One of his sitters – the historian Daniel Halévy – certainly testified to these long but enormously enjoyable sessions with Blanche, and to the fact that they produced remarkable results. Blanche’s studio in Dieppe gained a reputation amongst artists, writers, and other distinguished guests as a safe place of congenial (and risqué) conversation. According to Marcel Proust his friend was blessed with “the old-fashioned education of a true gentleman; elegant and presentable, witty and cultivated.”

We have all become so familiar and comfortable with the idea of the struggling penniless painter suffering for his art (the van Gogh architype) that today it is tempting to be suspicious of artists from wealthy backgrounds, but I would suggest that Blanche’s upbringing and financial independence helped his portraiture enormously, principally as it enabled him to free himself from the need for approval and dependence upon commissions. Here, for once, was an artist who was as comfortable and well-off as his wealthy clients so if they didn’t like way he painted they were free to find another artist.

Not even Blanche’s contemporary, the great American artist John Singer Sargent painted the portrait of so many prominent figures. The famous fin-de-siècle names to sit for Blanche included Virginia Woolf, Aubrey Beardsley, James Joyce, Colette, Edgar Degas, Claude Debussy, Henry James, Auguste Rodin, Marcel Proust, Thomas Hardy, Walter Sickert, Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, Jean Cocteau, Ida Rubinstein, Stéphane Mallarmé, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Valéry, Aldous Huxley, and D.H. Lawrence as well as Royalty and just about every prominent society beauty of the Belle Epoque.

‘Colette’ & ‘Nijinsky’ by Jacques-Émile Blanche (1910), the latter sold for $2,7,000,000 in 2022
Images courtesy of Christie’s, London and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

Blanche’s relationship with John Singer Sargent was a complex one. Although they were friends and shared much in common – both eminent portrait painters, both anglophiles, both homosexual – Blanche and Sargent could not have been more different in their handling of sitters and artistic philosophy. Whilst Blanche was gregarious, Sargent was reserved and as anxious around his subjects as he was about the portraits he painted of them. According to Blanche, Sargent would say to him, “Painting a portrait would be quite amusing if one were not forced to talk while working. What a nuisance to entertain the sitter and to look happy when one feels wretched.” In his waspish autobiography ‘Portraits of a Lifetime’ Blanche praises the talents of the “van Dyck of Tite Street” but also dismisses his brushwork as “too facile and too obvious” and criticises Sargent’s famous portrait of Henry James for lacking “psychological insight”.  It is quite possible that Blanche’s real problem with his American friend was that he had made a home in what had once been Whistler’s house in Chelsea, and Sargent was just not Whistler.  Meanwhile, for the most part, Sargent kept his opinions to himself though perhaps he did slip them into the portrait he painted of Blanche which portrays him as a shifty amphibian emerging from a slimy green ooze. And with the hand of a Duchess to boot!

‘Portrait of Jacques-Émile Blanche’ by John Singer Sargent (1886)
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In his later years – again following the lead of his mentor Edmond Maître – Blanche was keen to enrich his talents and add to the strings of his creative bow. A successful secondary career as an author saw the publication of many essays on art history, several novels, and two enjoyably gossipy autobiographies in which he recounted his, albeit somewhat embellished, Art World adventures and dropped names like there was no tomorrow.

Over the course of his long and successful career Jacques-Émile exhibited internationally at almost every important venue. A short list must include the Salon des Artistes, Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Exposition du Salon des Tuileries, Salon des Indépendants, and the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris as well as the Royal Academy, New English Arts Club and Grosvenor Gallery in London, the Venice Biennale and Munich Glaspalaste, and major venues in New York, Brussels, Berlin, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Chicago, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Rome, Madrid, and Saint Petersburg. He also taught at the Académie de la Palette and the Académie Vitti in Montparnasse.

In the 1930s Blanche was made a Commander of the Legion d’Honneur and elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the most distinguished position any French artist could be offered by the state. Jacques-Émile Blanche died in 1942 and was buried in the family mausoleum in Passy, his childhood home.

by Gavin Claxton
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