In 1888, Kodak brought out its handheld camera, a primitive looking brown box that, nonetheless, impressed the artistic world with its potential. Post impressionist painters became fans and used the device, not only to inspire their work but also to record private moments with family and friends. Snapshot: Painters and Photographers, Bonnard to Vuillard, a new exhibit at the Phillips Collection, brings together more than 200 photographs along with more than 70 paintings, prints, and drawings that brilliantly displays the synergy between the various art forms.
Seven artists are featured in the exhibit, including Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Edouard Vuillard, and Félix Vallotton, leading members of the Nabis, a group of French avant-garde artists whose style was inspired by Paul Gauguin. Three other artists—George Hendrik Breitner, Henri Evenepoel, and Henri Rivière—also experimented with photography, embracing the new medium with great enthusiasm. Snapshot is the largest selection ever assembled of photographs by these post impressionists.
While some of the photos were used as templates for paintings, many other photos recorded private family times that were never meant for public consumption. Pierre Bonnard lived with Marthe de Méligny for 25 years and didn’t have children, while his sister, Andrée, married to the composer Claude Terrasse, had three—Marcel, Robert, and Renee. Bonnard captured precious moments with the Terrasse children using his Kodak Bull’s Eye Camera. While these photos are very small, requiring the viewer to stand a foot away, the details captured by the camera—facial expressions, for example—as well as the composition within each frame are impressive.
Henri Rivière recorded in photos the construction of the Eiffel Tower, and in 1889 produced a series of lithographs, eventually published in a book, 36 Views of the Eiffel Tower. (A recreation of Rivière’s 1902 book is available on Amazon). The photos and lithographs offer scenes of a turn-of-the-century Paris, with the tower always visible.
The exhibit provides insight into the minds and hearts of the artists. Henri Evenepoel’s life was marked by illness and death. He lost his mother and two other family members when he was just a child. He photographed his own children whenever they were ill, perhaps seeking to capture their images in the event they died. (Evenepoel himself died from typhoid when he was 27).
With Evenepoel’s work we also see how he used his photographs as studies for his paintings. A photo of his son, Charles Standing in His Striped Jersey, is next to his painting, Charles in a Striped Jersey. Both are full length images, showing his son looking pensive and older than his years.
Evenepoel was in love with his cousin, Louise, and photographed her in a large white hat before committing that image to canvas. There are several photographs of Louise’s daughter, Henriette, one where she holds a large hat in her lap. In the painting, she wears a large red hat.
George Hendrik Breitner, inspired by Japonism, Japan’s influence on the European arts, took many photographs of Geesje Kwak, a 16 year-old hat seller from Amsterdam, wearing a kimono. While the photos are in black and white, the subsequent painting (at top) is rich in reds and golds.
Maurice Denis reversed the creative process, taking a photograph (Two Girls Paddling in the Sea Swinging Madeline), that resembled his earlier painting (On the Beach, Two Girls Against the Light). Like the other Nabis painters, Denis was reluctant to reveal his work in photography because the newly emerging art form was frowned upon by critics.
Four early Kodak cameras are on display, as well as the original instructions for taking photos, setting exposures, and developing the film. There is the famous quotation from Kodak’s founder, George Eastman: “You press the button, we do the rest.” The sad feeling hanging over this exhibit is the current state of Kodak. A company that once inspired artists to produce stunning work, now sits in bankruptcy, at a time when photography has never been more accessible to the masses. That was what Kodak set out to do. It’s a shame it no longer shares in the success of that vision.
Snapshot: Painters and Photographers, Bonnard to Vuillard
The Phillips Collection
1600 21st Street, NW
Washington DC 20009
Photos, from top:
1. George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in Red Kimono, Geesje Kwak, 1893–95. Oil on canvas, 24 x 19 1/2 in. Noortman Master Paintings, Amsterdam. On behalf of private collection, Netherlands.
2. Pierre Bonnard, Ker?Xavier Roussel and Edouard Vuillard, Venice, 1899. Sepia?toned gelatin silver print from original negative, negative: 1 1/2 x 2 in. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Gift of the children of Charles Terrasse, 1992. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY.
3. Henri Rivière, The Eiffel Tower: Painter on a knotted rope along a vertical girder, below an intersection of girders, 1889. Gelatin silver print, 4 3/4 x 3 1/2 in. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Gift of Mme Bernard Granet and her children and Mlle Solange Granet, 1981. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.
4. Henri Rivière, Plate 36, The Painter in the Tower, from Thirty?Six Views of the Eiffel Tower, 1888–1902. Lithograph, 8 1/4 x 6 5/8 in. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY.
5. Henri Evenepoel, Self?portrait in three?way mirror, 1898. Modern gelatin silver print, 2011, from original negative, 1 1/2 x 2 in. © Archives of Contemporary Art in Belgium–Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.
6. Henri Evenepoel, Louise at Wépion, summer 1897. Modern gelatin silver print, 2011, from original negative, 1 1/2 x 2 in. © Archives of Contemporary Art in Belgium–Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.
7. Henri Evenepoel, The White Hat, 1897. Oil on canvas, 22 3/8 x 18 1/8 in. Collection of Eric and Louise Franck, London.
8. George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in a kimono (Geesje Kwak) in Breitner’s studio on Lauriersgracht, Amsterdam, n.d. Gelatin silver print, framed: 12 1/4 x 15 1/4 in. Collection RKD (Netherlands Institute for Art History) The Hague.
9. Maurice Denis, Two girls, paddling in the sea, swinging little Madeleine, Perros?Guirec, 1909. Gelatin silver print, 5 7/8 x 6 1/2 in. Musée Maurice Denis, le Prieuré, Saint?Germain?en?Laye. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.
10. Maurice Denis, On the Beach (Two Girls against the Light), 1892. Oil on board mounted on panel, 8 1/8 x 9 7/8 in. Private collection, Germany. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.