The painter Jacques-Émile Blanche was at the center of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century art world in both France and England. In addition to his visual art work, he was also a prodigious writer and a significant collector of his colleagues’ art. Because of this, his life reflects many of the concerns that characterized forward-looking visual artists, writers, composers and dancers during this time period.
Blanche was born into a family of well-respected physicians on January 31, 1861. His grandfather, Esprit Sylvestre Blanche (1796-1852), was the founder of the famously progressive mental health institution that eventually became known simply as ‘Dr. Blanche’s Clinic’. The doctor’s concept was that mentally ill patients should be treated with compassion within a residential environment that promoted outdoor activities and hydrotherapy. When Dr. Blanche first established his clinic in 1821, he purchased a large plot of land in Montmartre with ample garden space that provided the patients with a certain amount of freedom. Twenty years later, he was both famous and wealthy, and able to move the clinic to the Hôtel de Lamballe in Passy on the western edge of Paris. The new facility offered more space for the psychiatric patients, both in the gardens and in the elegant eighteenth century mansion; the site also had natural springs which were used as part of the hydrotherapy treatments. As in the Montmartre clinic, the Blanche family lived on site, mixing with the psychiatric residents on a daily basis.
It was here that Jacques-Émile Blanche spent his childhood, under the direction of his father, Émile, who was also a physician. By the time that Dr. Émile Blanche (1820-93) assumed operational responsibility in 1852, the clinic served a highly selective clientele, many of them celebrated musicians, writers and artists. Shortly after stepping into the directorship of the clinic, Émile Blanche married a distant cousin, Félicie, probably as a result of a family arrangement. Two years later in 1856, their first child, Joseph, was born; Jacques-Émile was their fourth child, but only the second one who survived; as a result, his mother was persistently concerned about her sons’ health. The brothers were raised with a plethora of nurses, governesses and tutors as well as the resident psychiatric patients who frequently dined with the Blanche family. Sadly, Joseph died of peritonitis in 1868 at age twelve, leaving his younger brother an only child at the mercy of a mother who was now "pathologically possessive and always fretting about his health." [i]
Bereft of his only playmate, the young Blanche nonetheless was privileged to meet a number of the finest artistic figures of his day, either because they were patients at the clinic or because they attended his mother’s Sunday Salons which the boy was permitted to attend. There he listened to adult conversations with painters like Eugène Delacroix, Camille Corot, Edgar Degas, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Henri Fantin-Latour, as well as the writers George Sand and Théophile Gautier. In addition, the historians Ernest Renan and Jules Michelet often attended as did the scientist Louis Pasteur. Blanche’s father took responsibility for his son’s musical education, taking him to concerts every Sunday afternoon and introducing him to composers such as Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz and Charles Gounod (who was a patient and later became Blanche’s piano teacher.) Frequent exposure to these extraordinary artists and thinkers provided Blanche with an incomparable, albeit unusual, education. Fortunately, this was balanced to some extent by his mother’s insistence on sending him to visit his cousins in Dieppe because she believed that he needed sea air for his health. More importantly, life in Dieppe offered Blanche playmates close to his own age, and the opportunity to participate in a more congenial family setting.
The onset of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 opened up another new world for the now nine-year-old Blanche when he was sent to London for safety. Traveling with his Scottish governess, Ellen Maclaren, he took up residence at Walton Place in Chelsea near the French embassy; and was invited to many social gatherings at the homes of exiled French aristocrats because of his father’s extensive network of contacts. For the young Blanche, who was already fluent in English courtesy of Maclaren’s instruction, London was a grand new world; as an adult, it would become his second home.
Blanche returned to Paris on March 12, 1871, presumably because his father believed the war was over. However, the Paris Commune emerged just a few days later and Dr. Blanche evacuated his clinic to the country, and his family to Dieppe. This seems to have been a turning point for Dr. Blanche in several ways: In 1872, he sold clinic and his practice to his long-time assistant, Dr. André Meuriot, and he began to build a large retirement home in nearby Auteuil. Clearly, he had realized that his son would not follow in his footsteps as a physician and would not take on the clinic as his life’s work.
When the family moved into the new house in Auteuil in 1873, the twelve-year-old Blanche was sent to the prestigious Lycée Condorcet, the first organized school that he had ever attended. It was there that he met the symbolist poet, Stéphane Mallarmé who was his English teacher. The mid-1870s were also particularly significant in the development of Blanche’s artistic education. His parents hired the painter Edmond MaÎtre (1840-98) as his tutor in 1874, and in 1875, MaÎtre introduced the budding artist to Edouard Manet, whom he deeply admired. That same year, MaÎtre also encouraged Blanche to purchase three paintings by Claude Monet and some works by Paul Cézanne, thus beginning his lifelong art collection. Four years later, after Blanche passed the first part of his baccalauréat exam, Maitre took him to Monet's studio where he purchased La Chaumière (W524a).
In the summer 1879, Mme Blanche decided to build a new house in Dieppe and commissioned Pierre-Auguste Renoir to paint decorative panels in the dining room. Somewhat to his mother’s dismay, the eighteen-year-old Blanche befriended Renoir and spent hours in conversation about painting with him. After passing the second part of his baccalauréat exam in 1881, Blanche proposed that he study with Renoir, but his mother declared that the Impressionist was too ‘common’ and directed her son to the studio of the academic society painter Henri Gervex, who was a friend of his parents.
More memorable for Blanche was the time that he was able to spend with Manet. Many years later, Blanche recalled that in October 1881, Manet challenged him to paint a brioche in order to demonstrate his artistic ability, saying: “Bring me a brioche, I want to see you paint a brioche, if you can paint a brioche, then you can call yourself a painter. I still have that little unassuming canvas that I daubed in front of him and that he was kind enough to look pleased about; adding: well I never, he paints a brioche like a natural." [ii] Like so many others, Blanche was devastated by Manet’s death in April 1883, and he made a point of purchasing a number of works from the painter’s estate the following year.
The decade of the 1880s proved to be formative in terms of Blanche’s art education as well as the trajectory of his career. He began the decade with a summer in London and an attempt at submitting a painting to the annual Paris salon; the painting, entitled My Mother, was rejected, but the trip to London solidified Blanche’s intention that he would spend at least some portion of each year in that city. In 1881, he had more success when Femme à bord d'un Yacht was accepted at Salon des Artistes Français; and in 1882, he was back in London with MaÎtre, Gervex, Paul Helleu and Auguste Rodin, meeting two new friends, James McNeill Whistler and Walter Sickert. The following year, he was introduced to Oscar Wilde as well. In 1884, he traveled again to London, but also made a trip to Spain with Rafael de Ochoa.
Blanche spent the middle years of the decade primarily in France expanding his network of friends and developing his career as a writer. Through his friendship with Georges Seurat, he met Félix Féneon and Georges Chevrier, the founders of La Revue Indépendante; Blanche soon began contributing both articles and illustrations. In 1886, he also began his enduring friendship with André Gide, who grew up in Normandy and was just beginning his literary career when he and Blanche met. Blanche’s interest in writing included not only journalistic essays, but also art history, criticism and eventually, novels. Although he considered himself a painter first and foremost, his writing remained a consistent aspect of his career.
By 1887, Blanche was back in London, becoming a member of New English Art Club (NEAC) courtesy of Whistler and joining in the resplendent celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. In October, he traveled with his close friends Robert Montesquiou and Léon Bédard to Austria and Romania where he met Pierre Loti, the author of Rarahu (1880), a novel about life in Tahiti that would later inspire Paul Gauguin.
During these years, Blanche’s career developed along a steady path. The more open marketplace, created largely by the Impressionist generation who insisted on independent exhibitions of their work, was now functioning well for the entire art community in Paris. In addition to regular submissions to the annual salons, Blanche was allied with a group called the Trente-trois that exhibited regularly at the Galerie Georges Petit, and a member of the Société des Pastellistes. He also exhibited with the Belgian independent group known as Les XX. In May 1890 he was one of the founding members of Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. In addition, his work as a painter was always nurtured by traveling with friends, whether to Bayreuth for the Wagner operas with Louis Metman and Gabriel Fauré or to Switzerland with Ochoa and Giovanni Boldini for the scenery--or to London to visit Sickert, Whistler and George Moore almost every year.
This productive and apparently happy period changed significantly in the early 1890s when Blanche’s parents’ health began to fail. His father’s death in 1893 necessitated that Blanche take responsibility for his increasingly frail mother, and it was during those years that his childhood friend Rose Lemoine began to accompany him on his painting expeditions in the area. They married on October 30, 1895 and Mme Blanche died five days later on November 4, 1895. The newlyweds set up house at the family estate in Auteuil, but spent the first year of their marriage on honeymoon in Italy. Although the marriage seems to have been content, it is unlikely that it was based on romantic love. Blanche’s clear preference for intense relationships with male friends formed the core of his emotional life. [iii]
The 1890s came to a close with two notable honors, the Legion of Honor medal in 1897 and a gold medal for his painting Le Peintre Thaulow et ses Enfants at the Exposition Universelle in 1900.
Early in the twentieth century, Blanche once again expanded his horizons, this time with several teaching posts. In December 1902, he began teaching at Académie de la Palette on the left bank; and in 1903, he accepted a post at the Académy Vitti in Montparnasse. At the same time, he agreed to take on private pupils whom he taught at his studio in Auteuil. Increasingly however, Blanche and Rose made their home in Normandy, and in 1902, they rented the Manoir du Tot in the town of Offranville about five miles southwest of Dieppe. Eventually, this became their permanent residence; its location near the English Channel also made it more convenient for Blanche’s regular visits to London where he kept a studio in Knightsbridge between 1906 and 1910.
Always mindful of new ideas in the arts, Blanche was in the audience for the first performance of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in May 1909 at the Théâtre Chatelet in Paris. He was instantly enchanted and soon became a sponsor of the company that so brilliantly combined dance, music and the visual arts in creative collaboration. The friendship between Blanche and Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) took root during this period as both men actively involved themselves in working with the Ballets Russes, and depicting the dancers, costumes and sets in their individual drawings and paintings.
At age forty, Blanche was promoted to an Officer of the Legion of Honor, a clear indication of his reputation within the French arts community. His energy seemed inexhaustible as he continued to paint, write and teach while simultaneously maintaining a rigorous program of traveling. In the years leading up to World War I, he spent many months in Italy, primarily in Rome and Florence, and also at the Venice Biennale in 1912 where he was asked to decorate several rooms for the exhibition of his works. These southern journeys often included a jaunt along the French Riviera, always with visits to Renoir in whatever locale he happened to be working.
The year 1914 found Blanche seeking specialized treatment for his eyes in Liebenstein, Germany; what he saw there, however, was preparation for war. Fortunately, World War I was not declared until August 3, 1914 when the artist was safely back in Offranville. The next few years were grim in many respects as the trench warfare stalemated just to the north and east of Blanche’s home. Rose volunteered as a nurse at the casino that had been converted into a hospital in Dieppe. Blanche finished his autobiographical novel Aymeris during this period, but he did little painting. Nearby friends such as Gide continued to visit often, but the war disrupted almost all aspects of normal life.
Blanche’s interest in painting revived when the Offranville parish church commissioned him to develop a large Mémorial honoring the soldiers who had died. Funded by public subscription, this work began in 1917 while hostilities were still occurring. In fact, the 1918 battle of Amiens forced the Blanches to take refuge with Rose’s sister at Saint-Louans in central France. The Mémorial painting would be officially inaugurated at the church on August 3, 1919, just six weeks after the Treaty of Versailles was signed.
As life became less fraught after the war, Blanche returned to his active involvement in the art world. Not surprisingly, he attended the first Paris Dada event on January 23, 1920 and soon made friends with the poet Max Jacob and surrealist leader André Breton. During these years, he was often in the company of writer François Mauriac whose portrait he had painted several years earlier. Perhaps this friendship explains Blanche’s intense focus on writing in the early 1920s as well. He published a novel, Tous des Anges in October 1920; Propos de peintre II in 1921; Cent Ans de Peinture Française d’Ingres au Cubisme and his autobiographical illustrated novel Aymeris in 1922. In 1923, after the death of his close friend Marcel Proust in November 1922, he also published Quelques Instantanés de M. Proust for La Nouvelle Revue Française.
It was not until 1924 that Blanche again concentrated on painting when the Parisian Galerie Jean Charpentier held his first retrospective exhibition in March, showing 150 of the artist’s paintings, watercolors and prints. Undoubtedly, the retrospective put Blanche back in the spotlight and perhaps re-energized his interest in the visual arts. That autumn, he returned to London--and painting--after an atypical absence of two years.
The 1930s began with the publication of the final version of Aymeris, and the acclamation of being promoted to a Commander of the Legion of Honor. In 1931, thirty of his paintings were exhibited at the Galerie Pierre Colle in Paris, and he published La Peinture et la Canicule as well as Les Arts Plastiques. In addition, he continued to accept new private pupils. Further honors arrived in 1935 when Blanche was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the most distinguished position any French artist could be offered by the state. In this capacity, he became a member of the Conseil Supérieur des Musées as well as the jury of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
With nearly seventy-five years behind him in 1936, Blanche began to write the first portion of his memoirs in English. Entitled Portraits of a Lifetime 1870-1914, he finished the text within a year, and celebrated its publication with a special exhibition of his work at the Arthur Tooth Gallery in London in October of 1937.
Back in Offranville in 1938, Blanche and Rose decided to purchase a smaller house, which they dubbed Le Clos Bernard. Their plan was to move once some much needed renovations were completed, but Rose’s health declined rapidly and she died in Paris on June 13, 1939. Combined with his personal loss, Blanche was very conscious of the impending political storm brewing with Nazi Germany. World War II began on September 3rd, and the British medical corps was again stationed in Offranville. Blanche’s Manoir du Tot was designated as a hospital/barracks and he was forced to move to Le Clos Bernard long before the construction was complete. It was here that he wrote the last installment of his English-language memoirs, Portraits of a Lifetime 1918-1938.
May of 1940 brought the first aerial bombing of Dieppe, and the now seventy-nine year old artist decided to flee to Pont-l’Abbé, Brittany. He was able to return home in September where he started on the French version of his memoirs, La Péche aux souvenirs (Fishing for Memories). Two years later, in January of 1942, Blanche’s oldest friend, Walter Sickert, died in Bath, Somerset, leaving him in deep grief. Eight months later, on September 30, Jacques-Émile Blanche died at 81 years of age. He is buried in the Blanche family vault in Passy near his childhood home.
Janet Whitmore, Ph.D.
Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums, Aberdeen, Scotland
Art Institute of Chicago
Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Brighton and Hove Museums, Brighton, England
Cleveland Museum of Art
Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Kirkaldy Museum and Art Gallery, Fife, Scotland
Lotherton Hall, Leeds Museums and Galleries, West Yorkshire, England
Manchester City Galleries, Manchester, England
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, France
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Musée Jacques-Emile Blanche, Offranville, France
Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp, Belgium
Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
Museum of London
National Gallery, London
National Gallery of Australlia, Canberra
National Trust, Plas Newydd, Isle of Anglesey, Wales
National Trust for Scotland, Brodie Castle, Moray, Scotland
National Portrait Gallery, London
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh
Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, England
Southampton City Art Gallery, Hampshire, England
Tate Britain, London
UCL Art Museum, London
York Art Gallery, North Yorkshire, England
[i] Jane Roberts, Jacques-Émile Blanche, (Paris: Editions Gourcuff Gradenigo, 2012)12.
[ii] Ibid., 27. Original citation from Jacques-Émile Blanche, Propos de peintre: de David à Degas (Paris: Emile-Paul Frères, 1919)143.
[iii] Ibid., 16. Roberts notes that Blanche had many “special friendships” over the course of his life, including Edmond MaÎtre, Robert de Montesquiou, Marcel Proust, Rafael de Ochoa, Jean Cocteau, and François Mauriac. His memoirs underscore the importance of these relationships in his life.