Eugene Buland 1852-1926

Eugene Buland 1852-1926. Aux limites du Realisme
Carcassonne, Musee des Beaux-Arts, from 19 October 2007 to 19 January 2008,
Chartres, Musee des Beaux-Arts, from 1 March to 18 May 2008,
Charleville-Mezieres, Musee de l’Ardenne, from 6 June to 6 October 2008,
Quimper, Musee des Beaux-Arts, from 30 October to 1 February 2009.

Some artists who followed Bastien-Lepage in the Naturalist path opened by him are becoming better known and appreciated (Pelez, Friant, Dagnan-Bouveret, Geoffroy, Debat-Ponsan, as well as foreign painters…) [1], but Eugene Buland remained until now hard to grasp. In some cases, one painting is enough to remember a name and recognize the artist, either because of a very personal or extravagant style, or due to a recurring subject. This is not Buland’s case, and as for many other painters of the Troisieme Republique, he had to continually change his style and subject matter in order to be noticed at each Salon : as Naturalist painters received few commissions and did not execute any large public or private decors, the works sold at the Salon were often their only source of income.
The first welcome surprise of the Buland retrospective [2], is to realize that in fact several of his paintings are already familiar although it was difficult to relate them to each other and to remember the artist. What is there in common between Boulangist Propaganda at the Musee d’Orsay, the Bretons Praying in Quimper or the diaphanous Christ at Martha and Mary’s from the Petit-Palais ? The exhibition reveals a consistent artist, a creator of several strong and popular images represented in such a neutral manner that their author seems on first impression to be keeping his distance.

1. Eugène Buland (1852-1926)
Innocent Wedding, 1884
Oil on canvas - 140 x 215 cm
Carcassonne, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée de Carcassonne

2. Eugène Buland (1852-1926)
Offering to the Virgin, 1879
Oil on canvas - 103 x 81.5 cm
Le Havre, Musée Malraux
Photo : Musée Malraux

His itinerary is a traditional one offering few surprises : a student of Cabanel (as many artists at that time), he won the Second Grand Prix de Rome twice with subjects from antiquity, which he never treated again but which already reveal a strong contrast in the clair-obscur light and a dramatic Realism. After a stay in Rome, he tried his luck at the Salon, receiving honorable mention and from there on was fairly successful, in a steady but not particularly triumphant manner. The government bought several of his canvases and awarded him the Legion of Honor. Though there are at times traces of Jean-Paul Laurens, Merson (ill. 1) or Tissot in the first paintings he exhibits, there is no doubt that Bastien-Lepage’s success and his way of renewing tradition determined his style and choice of life. In 1886, he left Paris to install his workshop in the countryside, at Charly-sur-Marne, in the Aisne. He did not paint the peasants laboring in the fields but rather chronicled local life in a style which observers compared to Maupassant. He often represented the humble piety of the people of the region (Restitution of the Virgin, The Day after the Wedding, Caen, Looking at the Relics, Troyes, Offering to the Virgin, Le Havre, ill. 2) or of Brittany in what remains today his most reproduced work, The Visit to the Virgin of Benodet (ill. 3) in Quimper [3]. A mixture of primitive hieratic majesty and photographic realism ensured the work’s popularity to the point that Buland was mistakenly considered to have specialized in devotional subjects from Brittanny as did Deyrolle or Guillou.

3. Eugène Buland (1852-1926)
Visit to the Virgin of Benodet, 1898
Oil on canvas - 115 x 147 cm
Quimper, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée de Quimper

4. Eugène Buland (1852-1926)
Caught in the Act, 1893
Oil on canvas - 65.2 x 80.7 cm
Private Collection

The show here was able to assemble most of the works held in French museums, as well as those from the heirs in Bordeaux, along with loans from abroad, sketches still held by the family, a fascinating Tripot from an American collection [4] and Caught in the Act, private collection (ill. 4), from 1893 which was exhibited to the public in 2003 at the Talabardon & Gautier Gallery. In a painting like this one, laden with moral implications (the two love birds have been surprised by the game warden), Buland describes the scene with a subtle psychological sense but without passing judgement nor denouncing anything. His painting never takes sides, be it socially, politically or even aesthetically. For this he paid with the scorn of Modern Art’s flatterers which, ironically, makes him seem more akin to contemporary art : a cold indifference, an entomologist’s eye, a suffocating air rendered by the close-up composition which one finds in many of today’s artists. Although he was wary of the Modernist spirit (representing only events of his own period, but not those which would have made him acceptable to the avant-garde, eulogizing machines for instance), his neutral observations, devoid of any emotion, of the candid moments in everyday life remind the viewer of a modern-day photographer.

5. Eugène Buland (1852-1926)
Municipal Council and Commission of Pierrelaye Organizing a Festival, 1891
Oil on canvas - 140 x 200 cm
Pierrelaye (France, Val d’Oise), City Hall

The retrospective also presents some accomplished drawings (a beautiful self-portrait from his early years) or that are preparatory for large formats, several studies helping to explain his creative process and also pochades done from life. As always, in the case of artists who are considered “academic”, they reveal another facet of his talent which is fresher and more “modern”. The Study of Young Girl in Profile (private collection no. 39) might even qualify as being Symbolist. Several of the titles play on this discrepancy, once again without clearly revealing the artist’s intentions. A throwback to the Dutch group portrait, composed as a secular last supper, the officials dressed in black and stiffly seated representing the Municipal Council and Commission of Pierrelaye Organizing a Festival (ill. 5) appear to be engrossed in a much graver decision-making process.
It seems strange that a painter who produced so many beautiful collective portraits could have done such few individual ones, even if the powerful The Gardener’s Meal from Chateau-Thierry can be placed in this genre. There are probably some awaiting discovery in their families. Provincial portraits under the Troisieme Republique are still terra incognita for researchers, when in fact a visit to any local public building invariably offers up a large number of them.

6. Eugène Buland (1852-1926)
A Day in Court, 1895
Oil on canvas - 120.7 x 97.2 cm
Chi Mei Museum, Tainan, Taiwan

7. Eugène Buland (1852-1926)
The Offering, 1887
Oil on canvas - 43 x 63 cm
Sale Piasa in Paris, 20 June 2008
Photo : Piasa

The exhibition offers proof of the extensive work provided by French museums, all the more admirable for having been carried out without any effort at mediatisation (several of the canvases were acquired in the last twenty-five years). No less than four museums have collaborated to offer an equal number of stop-overs during a one-year period. Art lovers who miss the show will no doubt regret it. They will perhaps console themselves by reading the excellent accompanying catalogue. The study is based on the DEA prepared by Paul Gilbert who unfortunately passed away too soon. Work was immediately taken over with consummate brio by Olivier Michel, the great specialist of Roman Settecento, an unexpected turn of affairs, and Marie-Noelle Maynard, curator at the museum in Carcassonne. The essays and entries are brief but essential, notably as concerns his relationship to photography. The layout artist has done an excellent job, making the book clear and simple to use and the colour of the reproductions is true to the originals, a feat in our days. The work also includes a list of paintings which are not exhibited or with unknown whereabouts accompanied by reproductions, some of which are known only from old black and white photographs, along with seven pages of reviews from Salon and Fortune critique. Adding to the enjoyment of rediscovering Eugene Buland, the museum goer will find excellent scholarly work [5], pleasant and easy to read. Definitely a success.

Collective work, Eugène Buland. Aux limites du Réalisme, Edition Panama Musées, 2007, 112 p., 18.50 €. ISBN : 978-2-7557-0281-1. Buy this catalogue

Visitor Information : Musée de l’Ardenne, 31, place Ducale, 08000 Charleville-Mézières. Phone : + 33 (0)3 24 32 44 65. Open daily except Mondays 10.00 to 12.00 and 14.00 to 18.00. Admission fee : 4 €.

Musée de l’Ardennel Website

Jérôme Montcouquiol, samedi 23 août 2008


[1] All of the artists rediscovered by Gabriel P. Weisberg in his publications in the 1980’s, have enjoyed a renewed interest by the public as proven, to take some recent examples, by the purchase of a Friant painting by Orsay (to be covered in an upcoming news item), the removal from storage of certain canvases and the announcement of forthcoming exhibitions on Aimee Nicolas Morot and Fernand Pelez. Last year, the Musee d’Orsay discreetly organized a retrospective on Jules Bastien-Lepage, a show which warranted more publicity.

[2] We saw the exhibition in Chartres.

[3] Emmanuelle Amiot-Saulnier devoted a chapter to the genre in her indispensable book last year, La peinture religieuse en France 1873-1879 (Musee d’Orsay, 2007). She had called for an in-depth study of Buland, on page 183. Her wish has come true.

[4] The surprising sale at over $350,000 at Sotheby’s New York on 24 February 2002 had amazed the art market ; the artist draws high prices at auctions in the United States however.

[5] The only negative note is the “Inventaire des œuvres non exposes” (Inventory of non exhibited works) at the back of the book, which does not reproduce all of the works listed, be it the poor décor by the artist at the Chateau-Thierry city hall, or Day at Court from the Chi Mei Museum in Taiwan, which came up for auction at Sotheby’s New York in November 1995. We reproduce it here for our readers’ pleasure (ill. 6). Finally, we would like to point out the recent resurfacing, at public auction on 20 June 2008, of a riccordo of the Restitution to the Virgin-the Day after the Wedding (ill. 7), the large format of which is held at the Museum in Caen.

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