The parallel between the work of Emmanuel de La Villéon and the story of his life, the balance between his life as a painter and his life as a man, is a striking one. The long succession of his paintings unfurls with the same meditative serenity as the long succession of his years, smoothly and without conflict; he succeeded in balancing his life as a painter with his life as a man, giving to each its due part, blending the tow with the same harmony one finds in his painting, for he had discovered how to preserve unity and equilibrium in a double life.
Emmanuel de La Villéon was born at Fougères on May 29, 1858, the fourth child of a Breto9n family with a fine tradition. Fougères is in the heart of Brittany, and the de La Villéon home was a great house overlooking the ramparts of the city. His father was County Arthur de La Villéon; his grandfather had been a naval officer; and his great-grandfather, Admiral de La Villéon, had been a companion of General de La Fayette.
While Emmanuel was still very young, he was sent to the Jesuit boarding school at Vannes. All his life, the artist was a dreamer, a dweller in an ivory tower, and his years at school were no exception. He was distracted, bored, at war with mathematics, although gifted in letters and poetry. He was a good Latin student and soon discovered Virgil, who’s Georgics awakened his instinctive love of nature. Virgil remained his favorite pet, and often during his life he affirmed, “I owe him my vocation.”
In the tradition of schoolboys, Emmanuel de La Villéon sketched all over the margins of his copybooks, but instead of drawing caricatures of his teachers, he traced trees. The day his grandmother gave him some pocket money, he rant to buy some colors, and during a vacation at home, produced a painting on the door of an attic. The family approved and admired, for after all, their family sympathized with such efforts since Count de La Villéon’s sister, Caroline, did portraits in oil.
Emmanuel’s mother, Disonie de la Hubaudiére, died when he was seventeen. She was young and tenderly loved by her five children, and her early death cast a veiled melancholy over the life of Emmanuel, a melancholy whose reflection could at times be seen in hi later work. By the time he was twenty-three, he had completed his military service and had suffered still another loss. His three sisters had died, and only his father, brother and himself were left. Emanuel wanted to paint. Finances were no problem for the family, but he had to secure his father’s approval of his plan to go to Paris to study art. Count de La Villéon finally agreed and escorted the young man to Paris himself. In 1880, the trip from Fougères to Paris was a veritable expedition of stagecoach and railroad, and a young man of good family had to be properly settled in Paris before being left to his own devices. So, before returning to Brittany, Count de La Villéon helped his son find a Paris studio, entrusted him to the instruction of a sculptor and left him under the protection of a family of friends.
Very shortly, Emmanuel discovered that the sculptor was not only completely academic, but also an execrable artist. So he left him. After trying several ateliers he finally decided on the Académie Julian. He had no pecuniary worries and could give himself entirely to the study of art. He had a genius for working steadily, a gift he never lost during his long life; he had a very sensitive but very independent temperament; he had a gift for making friends. For five years, until 1885, he remained at the Académie Julian, working arduously. As a student he used the traditional somber palette and painted indoors until he discovered landscape painting in the open air. He owed this revelation to one of his artist-friend, Damoye, who led him out of Paris one December day to paint the floodwaters at Saint-Ouen. The canvas de La Villéon painted that day was a landmark in his work, a presage of what was to come, and he himself considered it so important that he noted on the back of the canvas, the date and the fact that it was painted from nature.
From that time on, Emmanuel de La Villéon abandoned the dim light of the studio, and painted from nature, struggling like the Impressionists to synthesize light and color. In the company of his friends, he went to the outskirts of Paris, at that time still filled with rustic charm, in search of subjects to paint. They also went to Sologne to paint the ponds under miss or sun, in the early morning or at twilight. All his life, ponds were a passion with de La Villéon, so much so, that many years later he had an artificial pond made at the property where he lived in order to have close at hand the reflections of light in water as a source of many notations he made on bits of cardboard he used as references for his larger completed paintings.
Portraits of de La Villéon when he was young show a very straight, very tall young man with deep-set, pensive eyes, a firm mouth, finely drawn under the turn-of-the-century mustache. Forty years later he had the same straight, tall silhouette; the same pensive eyes, but he wore a soberly trimmed gray beard framing an old man’s face. The Bretons are hardy people and de La Villéon was no exception. He was intrepid and indefatigable. His painting forays were veritable expeditions on which he set out with so much material and gear that he was often mistaken for a deliveryman, to his great amusement. He had a large bag fitted to the frame of his bicycle in which he stowed his color box, his collapsible easel, and his leather-seated chair. Fastened to his back was his vast parasol, rolled up like a shepherd’s umbrella, and a new canvas. Whether it was freezing or torrid, he set up his easel, indifferent to the weather unless the oils congealed in the cold or the colors ran in the heat. His concern for his colors was greater than for himself, and his enthusiasm for his painting seemed to protect him from chill and from sunstroke alike.
In 1888, de La Villéon made a trip to Holland and wrote back to his friend, de Cheneviere, curator of the Louvre, letters overflowing with joy, detailing the discoveries he had made and describing the numerous paintings he had produced. In the same year, he made new friends who shared his enthusiasm: Vincent Darasse, Maurice Chabas, Albert Besnard, Maxime Maufra, Carolus-Durran.
Though he studied, lived and worked in Paris, de La Villéon never forgot his native Brittany and returned there each year to work at this brother’s home, Château de Montmuran, near Rennes. He had already exhibited Les Bords de la Zaan at the Salon, a painting he had produced in Holland. In 1890, his paintings were show at the Salon des Indépendants and elicited much comment; 1890 also marks the year in which the discoveries of the Impressionists enriched him and definitively oriented him. The sharpness of his vision, the lightness of his stroke, the light with which his color was impregnated, the suppleness and pearliness of the impasto, all were deployed and embellished in his compositions and landscapes. He was thirty-eight years old; his talent and reached maturity; he knew where he was going, and he pursued his goal with ardor and enthusiasm.
In 1892, Emmanuel de La Villéon married Thérèse de Baudreuil. She was a charming woman of a very musical family, and she initiated her husband into fine classical music. Mozart became de La Villéon’s favorite composer. He never tired of listening to his music and often put down his brush to take up his flute and share in family concerts of Mozart. In alter years, with the advent of radio, de La Villéon listened to Mozart while he painted and often said, “Mozart is my painting.”
The young couple’s honeymoon was spent in Spain. De La Villéon brought back little paintings and quantities of sketches, which he reworked upon his return to Paris. With some of his friends he formed the group known as Les Inquiets whose exhibitions were held at the Salle Petit, while he continued to exhibit at the Salon des Indépendants.
His marriage brought a new element into his life – Switzerland. His wife’s family owned a chalet near Yverdon, facing the Jura range and the Lake of Neuchatel. Enchanted by the changing light of the Jura region, the painter traveled all over the area on his bicycle, laden down with his gear, often staying away several days at a time. Upon his return he would be welcomed with open arms and feasted, much would be made more enthusiastically then ever, and everyone in the house would be happy. Much later his children recounted their memories of the marvelous evenings when they listed in their beds to the music that lulled them to sleep, late in the summer nights.
There was deep affection in the de La Villéon family; there was loving communication with regard to music; but here was no understanding of his painting, only affectionate indulgence. Rigid academicism was still the acceptable thing, and Bougereau was the artist sacred to bourgeois society. So, for those with who he lived, de La Villéon was a revolutionary innovator, to such a point that his supple, brisk, fluid experiments in painting were termed “octopuses” and he was laughed at, criticized, lectured to, all “for his own good.” And all to no avail, for he took seriously the title of artist and was of an intractable and unshakable tenacity. It was precisely here that he found and established the equilibrium between his life as an artist and his life as a man.
He established an inviolable line of demarcation, a watertight bulkhead between his art and his social milieu. His acute sense of duty and deep affection for his family prevented his infringing upon the rights of his family in the interest of his painting, but never was family life permitted to encroach upon his artistic domain. He was absent-minded, abstracted, an artist to the outermost reaches of his soul and mind, careless and forgetful of the demands of established programs, but he respected and recognized the necessity of order and organization in family life. So he kept a large watch in the middle of his color box, nestled among the tubes, to remind him of meal times, and docilely, punctually appeared at the table at the same time as the other members of the family. The watch mounted guard at the frontier between artistic life and bourgeois life and assured that each received its due.
From 1890 on, the tempo of painting and exhibitions mounted for de La Villéon. He had paintings in group exhibitions in Angers, Rennes, Paris and Bordeaux; there were one-man shows of his work in Paris; his work appeared in the important Salons; he became a member of the Salon d’Automne; in the International Exposition of 1900 he received the Diploma Hors Concours – Jury Member; he painted in Brittany and Switzerland, as well as, in Paris; he evolved and progressed constantly through steady work, his vision refined and strengthened by his daily confrontation with nature.
The outbreak of war in 1914 ended his ties with Switzerland. His wife’s parents died; their Swiss property was sold; de La Villéon never returned to that country. He also left Paris, having purchased a home in the Nivernais, a country after his own heart, with the softness of its valleys, the harmony of its sinuous lines, the freshness of its suave tones, its deep lanes, flowering hedges in spring, lively brooks foaming at the millraces, changing skies, wet field – all this recalled the charms of his own Breton countryside. In this new home he adopted the practical system of making small cartoons, not much larger than the palm of a hand, on which he made swift sketches in oil. These were more accurate than notations made in pencil or watercolor and served as a basis for his canvases in oil. The calm and peace produced their fruit in an outpouring of superb paintings and the full blossoming of his talent.
In 1918, nine large paintings by de La Villéon were exhibited in America. As always, he painted steadily and his work went to the great Salons and to one-man exhibitions in the leading Paris galleries. Three of his paintings were purchased by the French Government; his paintings were added to the permanent collections of the Museums of Morlaix, Rennes, Cosne and Vannes. Collectors in Canada, the United States, England and Japan purchased his work. He lived and painted for a time at his daughter’s home in the Rhineland, delighted with the river and the romantic towns crowning the escarpments along its banks.
He spent his last years with his second daughter, first at Autrans, then in Vienne, and finally in Paris, surrounded by his children and grandchildren who adored him, for he remained gay and young despite his years. To his grandchildren, who ranged from twelve to twenty years old at that time, le left an unforgettable memory. He was always slim and straight, full of activity and curiosity, very young-looking with hair barely touched with gray. He was affable, spirited, sought the company of children, whom he understood and amused in the most charming way. He knew how to interest himself in their games And in their work and participated in both with that grace springing from the freshness of heart and the sensitiveness he had preserved in spite of the disappointments of life. But, as always, the joys of family life did not interfere with his work, and he painted constantly.
When the Second World War broke out, Emmanuel de La Villéon divided his time between Paris and Yonville, where his third daughter lived, still painting. He passed the entire summer of 1943 at Yonville, painting in the open air. He was eighty-five years old; he had just had a brilliantly successful Parisian exhibition; he was preparing for an important retrospective exhibition of his work the following winter in Paris. In November 1943, he went to Paris to make final preparations for it and, in January, contracted pneumonia. He died on January 9, lucid and serene, still thinking of his work.
Emmanuel de La Villéon was a spiritual relative of Gullaumin, Monet and Pissarro. He was trained in the academic school, but liberated himself from it, and must be ranked among the Post-Impressionist masters. He was a painter of sincerity and j9y, a painter of nature whose passionate observer he was for more than half a century. Tirelessly throughout the seasons he painted variations of the same theme- nature – in winter or in summer, spring or autumn, at dawn or at twilight, under snow or mist or sun. He inscribed on canvas the dazzling freshness of morning, the color of the harvest, of plowing, of glorious sunsets. He knew how to express the russet-aureoled air of autumn, the charm of winter, the tranquil atmosphere of the summer sun, the nuances of the atmosphere, the lyricism of trees, the splendor of the seasons, all in a hymn of harmonious sonorities. Emmanuel de La Villéon extracted the best from the art of the Impressionists, and then he proceeded on his own personal way.