Life

(b Paris, 23 March 1857; d Paris, 11 Aug 1939). French painter. He studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and in the studios of Henri Lehmann, Fernand Cormon and Léon Bonnat. His Salon entry in 1880, Portrait of M. O. (untraced), reflected his early attraction to the realist tradition of Spanish 17th-century painting. The impact of Impressionism encouraged him to lighten his palette and paint landscapes en plein air, such as In the Fields of Eragny (1888; Paris, Y. Osbert priv. col.). By the end of the 1880s he had cultivated the friendship of several Symbolist poets and the painter Puvis de Chavannes, which caused him to forsake his naturalistic approach and to adopt the aesthetic idealism of poetic painting. Abandoning subjects drawn from daily life, Osbert aimed to convey inner visions and developed a set of pictorial symbols. Inspired by Puvis, he simplified landscape forms, which served as backgrounds for static, isolated figures dissolved in mysterious light. A pointillist technique, borrowed from Seurat, a friend from Lehmann’s studio, dematerialized forms and added luminosity. However, Osbert eschewed the Divisionists’ full range of hues in his choice of blues, violets, yellows and silvery green. Osbert’s mysticism is seen in his large painting Vision (1892; Paris, Mus. d’Orsay). The Rosicrucian ideal of ‘art as the evocation of mystery, like prayer’ finds no better expression than the virginal figure of Faith—often interpreted as either St Geneviève or St Joan—set in a meadow with a lamb and enmeshed in an unearthly radiance. Such works were praised by Symbolist writers who considered them visual counterparts of the poetry of Paul Verlaine, Stéphane Mallarmé and Maurice Maeterlinck. Osbert was called a ‘painter of evenings’, an ‘artist of the soul’ and a ‘poet of silence’ for his evocation of a mood of mystery and reverie. (Source: The Grove Dictionary of Art)

Works

Vision, 1892

This painting was presented at the Salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1892 before featuring the following year in the second Rose+Croix Salon which brought together the elite of the Symbolist artists. A later presentation of the work, in 1899, provides more information about its subject: a vision of St Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris.
Like many of Osbert’s paintings, this mystical, meditative painting uses a range of blues with no attempt at realism and no desire to illustrate the saint’s role in defending Paris against the Hun invasion in the mid-fifth century. Distinct in that respect from traditional history or religious paintings, this work, which drew much comment from journalists and art lovers who saw it on display, was considered to be more an illustration of a soul state. Since then, links have been established with neurological research, particularly that of Jean-Martin Charcot. It may be that the ecstatic state of the model, her rigid pose and fixed upward gaze were inspired by research into hysteria which was being carried out at the Salpétrière Hospital at the time. Reports on this research, illustrated by photographs, were widely circulated by the contemporary press.

 

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