Le Bois des Moutiers and Jacques-Émile Blanche

Edwin Lutyens’s prodigy house at Varengeville, rebuilt for Guillaume Mallet from 1898, was well known to the painter Jacques-Émile Blanche (1861-1942) who lived nearby from 1902 at the Manoir du Tôt, Offranville and went to tea with the Mallets every Wednesday when he was at home. In Blanche’s memoir Portraits of a Lifetime – The Late Victorian Era. The Edwardian Pageant. 1870-1914, he related that ‘Lutyens, the architect, found his first opportunity of proving his good taste and talent. (And) also put up another very ingenious house for the same Varengeville enthusiast. This brought in its train a transformation of the entire rural style and the gardens of the neighbourhood. Lutyens has earned his right to a statue in the square before the town hall’.

Born in Paris of an affluent family, Blanche moved in beau monde and cultural circles and was a talented musician, art critic and prolific author, but, notably, he was one of the paramount French portrait painters of the Belle Époque and during the years after the Great War – Degas, Proust, Gide, Rodin, Debussy, Fauré, Cocteau, Colette, Stravinsky and Nijinsky – to name just some of the best-known among his many subjects. His extraordinarily prodigious output – some 1500 works – is a precious and perceptive record of a fascinating cultural and mondain era. And there were landscapes, interiors and still-lifes. As an art teacher, Henry Lamb and Duncan Grant were among his pupils in Paris, on the recommendation of Simon Bussy, husband of Dorothy Strachey.

Blanche was firmly attached to Dieppe from his youth where family summers were spent. Walter Sickert (who became a life-long friend), Degas, Renoir, Monet, Whistler and Oscar Wilde among the crowd of visitors. But Blanche was equally at home in England, enjoying the social season and weekends in country houses, both aristocratic and of the rich – good sources of commissions for portraits. He painted scenes of Knightsbridge, Lord’s Cricket Ground, Henley Regatta, the Derby at Epsom racecourse, and the celebrations of the crowning of George V. More importantly, he painted portraits of Aubrey Beardsley, George Moore, James Joyce, Henry James, Walter Sickert, Charles Conder, Thomas Hardy, Max Beeerbohm, Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, and Virginia Woolf – he introduced her to the French. She is the only member of the Bloomsbury Group – which he frequented – whose name is widely recognized to these days in France.

The exhibition: Du Côté de chez Jacques-Émile Blanche at the Fondation Bergé – Yves St Laurent, 5 avenue Marceau, Paris 16e ran until 27 January 2013, presenting 70 of his works within a décor by Jacques Grange evoking the atmosphere of the Belle Époque. The leading Blanche expert, Jane Roberts, has just published her long awaited and beautifully illustrated monograph: Jacques-Émile Blanche. 39€ English edition: ISBN 978-2-35340-129-1 www.gourcuff-gradenigo.com

Michael Barker