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P.A.J. DAGNAN-BOUVERET

AND THE ILLUSION OF PHOTOGRAPHIC NATURALISM

G a b r i e l  P.  W e i s b e r g



hen the following essay appeared in Arts Magazine (April, 1982) on the work and contribution of Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret (1852-1929) it represented a concerted effort to reveal the ways in which Dagnan-Bouveret had made significant changes to the evolution of naturalist painting and, by implication, to the academic tradition of which he was then considered a primary proponent.

Bouveret's paintings has continued, not only with further study of his naturalist imagery, but with a renewed interest in his later symbolist-religious compositions and his role in expanding portraiture during the Third Republic in France. In each of these instances, as we have gained a broader picture of the renewal of academic creativity, the position of Dagnan-Bouveret has loomed as dramatically significant. As an elected member to the Institut de France, as a replacement following the death of the still life painter Antoine Vollon in 1900, Dagnan-Bouveret became, by the time of his death, a staunch opponent of modernism and an avowed continuator of the opinions, traditions and direction of his mentor, Jean-Léon Gérôme. In effect, Dagnan-Bouveret, became an arch anti-modernist, was recognized as such at the time, as well as a proponent for the support of the entire academic tradition at the moment when it was coming under its fiercest attack from the modernist abstractionists.
Now, eighteen years after the appearance of the Arts Magazine article, Dagnan-Bouveret is about to become the focus of a major international exhibition that will open at the Dahesh Museum (Fall, 2002). The strains of his work that we first identified in 1982 - his interest in reconceptualizing contemporary scene painting, his photographic verisimilitude, Dagnan's ability to create new working methods both in drawings and paintings - have contributed to his growing deftness as a major late proponent of the revivified academic tradition. But Dagnan-Bouveret was more than this. He was capable of creating large-scale paintings that gave the impression of a "virtual reality", while, at heart, they were constructions that he had developed, enlarged, pursued in the quiet of his own studio. Dagnan-Bouveret's work reference a magical ability to understand the significance of new technology and how new approaches could develop a heightened range of creative possibilities, if they could be mastered by a painter with skill and creative imagination.


In making this article available once again to a large audience, we are further demonstrating Dagnan-Bouveret's importance to our era and preparing a continued foundation for acknowledging this in the exhibition "Dagnan-Bouveret and the Academic Tradition" in 2002.

That Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret relied heavily on photography for the creation of his paintings may represent not only the practice of one naturalist artist but may suggest that other painters of realism employed the camera more extensively than has heretofore been conceded.

"Here ... there are some artists of rare ability, of extreme sincerity, who are astonishing observers, far more conscientious than one can imagine, who spent enormous amounts of time and who lavish superior talent to give us just the emotion which might be produced by photography. M. Dagnan-Bouveret is one of these artists...and his Horses at the Watering Trough can just as well serve for our demonstration."1

If the critic for Le Siecle had had further insight into the actual creation of P.A.J. Dagnan-Bouveret's imposing Horses at the Watering Trough it has not been passed down to us.2
However, by singling out Dagnan's canvas for particular commendation, and by emphasizing how close the painter had come to a photographic effect, it was possible to sense that Dagnan had completed a work which was somehow different from his earlier Salon entries, and which placed him at the forefront of the "modern" painters of 1885.

The composition also marks, in effect, a change in the painter's development, Dagnan now entered into a complex relationship with the photographic medium since it gave him an opportunity to distance himself from what he was actually painting, providing him with new sources of composition and serving as aide-memoires when his studio models could no longer pose for him.3 Allusiveness toward photography permeates all of his mature work but is nowhere more apparent than in three key paintings which afforded much acclaim when displayed at the Paris Salons of the mid-1880s. These canvases, which we will treat individually later, are Horses at the Watering Trough, The Pardon in Brittany and Breton Women at a Pardon.

Dagnan's Early Interest in Photography

It is difficult to pinpoint with accuracy, with the evidence now available, the moment when Dagnan-Bouveret first became involved with photography. During his Parisian student days (in the 1870s) Dagnan had come into contact with a number of young painters, including Jules Bastien-Lepage, who may have utilized photographs as sources for their paintings.4 When Dagnan visited Bastien-Lepage's rural village of Damvilliers in the late 1870s, in the company of the American realist painter J. Alden Weir, he may have had an opportunity to see photographs of Bastien's grandfather, a figure of considerable importance in his grandson's early canvases.5 Similarly, when Dagnan painted several early portraits of his own grandfather, Gabriel Bouveret, he instilled a striking naturalness into the pose and an accuracy into the facial features that was suggestive of a growing awareness of the facility offered by photography in the creation of lifelike images.6 Dagnan's involvement with photography may have blossomed through contact with his teacher, Jean-Léon Gérôme, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Teacher and pupil remained close friends near Vesoul in the Franche-Comte, so that he could be near his former professor who occasionally visited the region.

Since it is now generally acknowledged that Gérôme used photography as an aid for some of his figures and architectural details, Dagnan's interest in the medium could correspondingly have been nurtured through discourse with his mentor and friend.7

Whatever the source of his introduction to photography, it is apparent from such canvases as Une Noce chez le Photographe (exhibited at the 1879 Paris Salon) that the medium strongly kindled the artist's imagination.8 This painting was widely discussed in the daily press. Some critics found it too anecdotal while others applauded Dagnan's originality. The work was photo-engraved by Goupil in April 1880 and circulated in Paris, London, and the Hague.9 Dagnan's career was now successfully established. Une Noce also intimates that at the moment of his own marriage to Anne-Marie Walter, Dagnan regarded photographs as accurate recordings of a personal event. He was now fully cognizant of the importance of the medium to people at all levels of society and, as an artist, he found its application to his own work inevitable.


Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret
The Conscripts



Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret
Horses at the Watering Trough



Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret
Photograph of Jules-Bastien Lepage's Grandfather



Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret
Portrait of his Grandfather
1877



Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret
Portrait of a Brittany Girl



The Accident
35 x 51 inches
Walter Art Gallery Baltimore



Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret
Une Noce chez le Photographe
c. 1879