French artist Paulin André Bertrand was a unique late 19th and early 20th-century landscapist. Much admired by his peers and art critics alike, Bertrand’s naturalist yet studious works were considered by some the very ‘root of painting.’ Bertrand combined elements from the prevailing artistic styles of the time with his own innate skill to create unique works which celebrate the glorious views of the Côte d'Azur.
Born in Toulon, Bertrand expressed an interest in art from a young age. From the age of ten, he took lessons with a local painter, Pierre Décoréis. Bertrand’s father, however, was reluctant for his son to pursue his passion, desiring instead that he become an engineer, a much more stable, dependable profession. But when Bertrand became sick with typhoid at the age of 16, his father was so spooked by his son’s near-death experience that after this time he allowed him to study art.
Bertrand began his formal education at the School of Fine Arts in Toulouse. He continued it further with studies under renowned painter Vincent Courdouan (1810-1893) at the eminent École des Beaux-Arts in the French capital of Paris.
Bertrand would remain living in the capital for the next 50 years, although he would spend three months at a time back in the South of France in Carqueiranne, near Toulon. At first, he spent his time working on and exhibiting portraits. An 1889 portrait of Augustin Daumas earnt Bertrand a medal from the Salon des Artistes Français. Indeed, this institution became a vital tool for Bertrand in the promotion of himself and his works. He would exhibit with them over a period of over 47 years.
Bertrand would also show his work at a number of national and international exhibitions, including in London, Sao Paulo, and Brussels. He was awarded a medal at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1900.
By this time, Bertrand had moved to predominantly producing landscapes. It was the Côte d’Azur scenes of his hometown and the surrounding area that inspired these works. Bertrand produced a wide range of scenes capturing the sun-kissed earth, the simmering waters, and the dazzling sky.
Having witnessed the rise of the impressionists, Bertrand was inspired by their devotion to capturing the ephemeral spirit of nature through light and colour. Yet he was also inspired by the earlier Barbizon School. This group of painters were devoted to naturalism much in the same spirit as the impressionists, yet with more attention to realism.
What makes Bertrand’s works so unique is his injecting of both of these styles into each piece whilst retaining his own unique verve. Landscapes are identifiably realistic, but also have a momentary feel to them through his ability to capture light and movement. Trees are captured gently rocking in a summer wind, the midday sun a fierce force casting the light in gorgeously vibrant tones.
Critics were keen to note Bertrand’s ability to sit astride different styles of art. ‘He is an impressionist who knows how to draw,’ wrote one. Indeed, the examples of Bertrand’s grisailles, meaning paintings executed in shades of grey, demonstrate that, even without his rich use of colour, Bertrand was incredibly skilled at capturing the scenes laid out before him. He was respected for his ability to enthuse his works with passion, yet also drive that passion towards a more pragmatic, observant approach.
Such was Bertrand’s renown, in 1921 he was awarded the highest honour in France, the Legion of Honour. He also worked as official painter to the French Navy, and completed a marine painting for the French government.
In his childhood, Bertrand had befriended a young Jean Aicard (1848–1921). Aicard would go on to be one of the leading French poets of his time, and his friendship with Bertrand only flourished further as the two men grew older. Aicard would often host Bertrand at his villa in La Guarde, very near Toulon. Indeed, when Aicard passed away in 1921, he bequeathed the villa to Bertrand.
Following Bertrand’s death in 1940, his widow, Julia, passed the villa and the collection of both Aicard’s writing and Bertrand’s works within it to the city. Since then, the city has opened the Jean Aicard/Paulin-Bertrand Museum in the villa.
Here, a number of Bertrand’s glorious scenes of the Côte d'Azur are on display. Bertrand’s works can also be found in numerous other museums and galleries, including the National Museum of the Navy in Paris.
Paulin André Bertrand was a tour de force of a painter. Scenes of the sun-anointed coast of southern France are fired with a considered yet forceful passion. He drew on the inspiration of other artists and other styles, yet constructed his own manner of doing things to create unique, fascinating works.
Born in Toulon, France.
Exhibited frequently with the Salon des Artistes Français.
Awarded a third-class gold medal by the Salon des Artistes Français.
Became official painter of the French Navy.
Awarded the Marie Bashkirtseff prize. Awarded a second-class gold medal by the Salon des Artistes Français.
Married Julia Pillore. Awarded medal at the Exposition Universelle, Paris, France.
Appointed Knight of the National Order of the Legion of Honour. Friend and poet Jean Aicard died. Bequeathed the villa ‘Les Lauriers roses’ in Jean Aicard’s will.
Died in La Garde, France. Buried in Central Cemetery, Toulon, France.