Wistful: Schuffenecker’s “Emile Bernard”

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Emile Bernard. Never heard of him, you say? Me neither (well, until I went to the MFAH recently). But doesn’t he seem fascinating?

detail from Emile Schuffenecker's "Portrait of Emile Bernard"

There he is, staring off into the distance, red hair framing a serious expression. He was painted by his friend, Emile Schuffenecker. The odd diagonal lines and bits of unfinished canvas, the disproportionate side table with vase and flowers, the green shadows and brightly colored abstract background—all these elements intrigue me. But the kicker is the bride. There she is, wearing her veil, just behind Monsieur Bernard. Is he dreaming about her? Is he remembering her? Is he hoping for her? She doesn’t have a face. Does he not know who she will be? Or was this some happy memory so faded he can’t clearly recall her features?

detail from Emile Schuffenecker's "Portrait of Emile Bernard"

Her body dissolves into a cloud of lavender paint daubs. It is like she is floating, (we’ve seen floating brides here before.) It prevents her from feeling concrete. I don’t believe for a moment that she is actually in the room standing behind our poor soul Emile.

detail from Emile Schuffenecker's "Portrait of Emile Bernard"

The vase with flowers seems physically present, though. These flowers seem important. They take up almost as much real estate as our hero’s head. Were they the bridal bouquet? Are they just a fragrant accidental reminder of a long ago nuptial? Proust had his madeleines, a cake-like treat whose scent would bring back boyhood pleasures from decades before. Are these flowers an olfactory trigger that conjure up a wedding day for our protagonist?

detail from Emile Schuffenecker's "Portrait of Emile Bernard"

These colors aren’t sad. Yellow, soft green, rose and lavender and peach. No mourning clothes. Not much black. The colors aren’t photorealistic either. Skin tones rarely look so green as the side of Mr. Bernard’s nose, cheek and temple. Red hair never seemed so purple. The color must mean something. They are bright, but not garish.

When I first saw this painting, I kinda assumed it was on a stairwell. The slanted composition, the triangles in the corners made it read like Emile was descending a staircase, with the table on the landing. But his expression doesn’t read “I’m going down stairs now.” His gaze is not on his feet or the landing below. And it would be rather precarious to place a small table with vase and flowers so near the precipice of the staircase. No, this doesn’t ring true.

detail from Emile Schuffenecker's "Portrait of Emile Bernard"

We are above him and at his level at the same time. I’m 5’4”, and his head was hung about eye level for me in the MFAH. The flowers loomed above us both. The artist’s perspective, though, is above the table, and a bit above Emile. The bride is not present enough to have much dimensionality or perspective. With the table above my head, but the image painted to make it look below, it feels like everything is going to fall out of the painting and onto me. It feels a bit disorienting, and very present. It is full of anticipation. Potential energy, that physics concept where a ball at the top of a hill has the potential to plumet downward, is here, too. That table, that vase, it could crash into Emile and into us, at any moment.

I set out to find out about Emile’s marital status. I was hoping to confirm some of my hypotheses. I did learn this: in 1889 Emile Bernard “spent the summer in St. Briac, where he met one Charlotte Buisse whom he had liked to marry, but was repelled by her father for not being able to maintain a family.” The following year, “After returning to Paris, Bernard had to find out that Charlotte was meanwhile engaged to someone else.” (Wikipedia) This portrait is dated 1890.

detail from Emile Schuffenecker's "Portrait of Emile Bernard"

I can’t know for sure that this incident with Mademoiselle Buisse accounts for the inclusion of a veiled bride in Schuffenecker’s portrait of his friend, but it seems plausible. I liked seeing the painting for myself, musing about what might be the reasoning behind the way it was painted. And I thoroughly enjoyed the hunt for its history, though I was frustrated that the Austin Public Library doesn’t own this book.

While I didn’t manage to access any scholarly writing on this painting aside from the gallery description, there is a great deal of art criticism on a related portrait: that of the artist who created it, Schuffenecker. That same year, 1890, Emile Schuffenecker (not to be confused with our red-headed sitter Emile) and his family sat for a rather better known artist: Paul Gauguin

Paul Gaugin's "Schuffenecker's Studio"

Now, it’s your turn. What do you see in Gauguin’s painting of Schuffenecker?

Here is a letter from Vincent Van Gogh to Emile Bernard, including a foul-mouthed reference to the relationship between art and sex. Click the subheading “translation” if you only see the French version.

This Wikipedia timeline of Emile Bernard’s life is where I learned of his marital history, including references to later wives and affairs. Oh la la la!

If you’d like to compare your ideas to those of the pros, you may read the Musée d’Orsay’s interpretation of Gauguin’s painting of the Schuffenecker Studio.

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