Gen Paul was born in Montmartre on July 2, 1895, and began painting and drawing as a child, producing a Self Portrait in 1908. After his father died in 1910, he was trained to work on decorative furnishings. He served in the French army in World War I, where he was wounded and lost a leg. It was during his convalescence that he turned to painting.
Gen Paul (he Americanized his name in 1916) never received any formal training and yet was able to make a living from his art for almost 60 years, only stopping painting in oils in 1964, but continuing to draw and produce lithographs until his death in 1972. Spending his entire life in Montmartre, save a few sporadic trips to Spain, Switzerland, Holland and the U.S., Gen Paul found himself continuously immersed in the strong currents of the constantly evolving contemporary art of the time. From 1850 to 1914 Montmartre was the center of the creative universe for painters, writers, poets and musicians. Gen Paul’s friends included Juan Gris, Utrillo, Vlaminck and Frank Will, and drawing on influences as diverse as Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Goya and Velázquez, he developed a dynamic form of expressionism. However, between 1925-1929 his work incorporated motion, through gestural brushstrokes, the juxtaposition of abstract and realistic forms, diagonal lines and zig-zags, and forced perspectives. Due to the inherent motion in many of his paintings, some consider Gen Paul to be the first action painter, and a precursor to the abstract expressionists of the 1950s.
The succeeding decades show the progression of Gen Paul’s vision. In the 1930s, a time in which he struggled with alcoholism, his works were somber, with carefully drawn lines and chosen colors – emphasizing rhythm over motion. But the 1940s saw him return to “action” paintings that incorporated many elements from the 1920s, but never reaching the emotion and expression of the earlier paintings.
In 1934 he was awarded the Legion of Honor and in 1937 was asked to create a large fresco for the Pavilion of Wines of France at the Paris International Exposition – the same Exposition in which Jean Dufy and his brother were creating the huge mural for the Pavilion of Electricity.
It should also be noted that Gen Paul was fascinated with jazz and traveled through the U.S. from New York to New Orleans and on to California, discovering subjects that begin to appear in his paintings. Gen Paul’s canvases touch on surrealism, even abstraction, and yet are founded in drawing. A single painting required from twenty to fifty preparatory drawings from which the work evolved. According to Maurice Rheims, from these sketches came “some of the best paintings of the century.”