Emile Bernard
French Painter, Inventor of Cloisonnism, Synthetism.

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Buckwheat Harvesters at Pont-Aven
(1888) Josefowitz Collection,

Emile Bernard (1868-1941)


Cloisonnism (1887-88)
Synthetism (1888)
Symbolism (1889-90)

For an idea of the pigments
used by Emile Bernard, and other
artists of the Pont-Aven School, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century.

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For the best works, see:
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One of the youngest and most innovative modern artists to work alongside Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) at Pont-Aven in Brittany, he is best known for his invention (1887-8) - in conjunction with Louis Anquetin (1861-1932) - of Cloisonnism, a style of Post-Impressionist painting in which flat areas of vivid colour are enclosed within thick black outlines. After this, Bernard worked closely with Gauguin to produce the broader style known as Synthetism, in which forms and colour schemes, are 'synthetized' with the artist's vision behind the painting, to produce a harder-hitting work of art. Both these two styles of Post-Impressionism were influential in promoting the idea that observation of the real world was only a part of the creative process. Other colleagues at Pont-Aven who were associated with Cloisonnism and Synthetism, included Paul Serusier (1863-1927), later to become leader of the Nabis, as well as Jacob Meyer de Haan (1852-95), Charles Laval (1862-94), Charles Filiger (1863-1928), and Armand Seguin (1869-1903). Once his work with Gauguin was over, Bernard's contribution to modern art became more literary, than painterly. In 1890, he was actively involved in organizing the first retrospective for his friend, the recently deceased Van Gogh (1853-90) - with whom he had shared several ideas and exchanged several paintings - and thereafter wrote a series of articles on fellow artists Odilon Redon (1840-1916), Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) and others. Later he published his correspondence with numerous Post-Impressionist painters of the day, and founded the arts review La Renovation Esthetique.




Born Emile Henri Bernard in Lille, Northern France in 1868, he spend much of his childhood in the laundry of his grandmother, who was to become one of the biggest fans of his art. When he was 10, the family moved to Paris, where Emile attended the College Sainte-Barbe, and afterwards the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs. In 1884, he joined the studio of Fernand Cormon (Fernand-Anne Piestre) (1845-1924), whose other pupils included Matisse (1869-1954), Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) and Van Gogh. Here, he explored Impressionism and Seurat's Pointillism (a form of Divisionism), and became a close friend of painter Louis Anquetin. In 1886, after being suspended from the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs for stylistic "errors", he destroyed all of his paintings, and took off for the Atlantic coast. He travelled around Brittany, whose traditions and scenery he found enchanting, and had a brief meeting with Paul Gauguin at Pont-Aven.

Cloisonnism (1887-88)

During the period 1887–1888, Bernard worked in Paris with Anquetin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec (the trio were dubbed the School of Petit-Boulevard). Of the three, Bernard was the most clear and forthright about the sort of art he wanted to create - a type of simplified decorative art, accessible to all. This decorative painting, which he developed in company with Anquetin, was labelled Cloisonnism by the critic Edouard Dujardin. Cloisonnist compositions typically featured distorted forms and areas of shadowless, unnatural colour, each edged with heavy outlines reminiscent of medieval stained glass or cloisonne enamels. The main intention was to express an inner world of emotion, rather than exterior objective reality. Bernard also developed a taste for Japanese woodcuts, as well as wood carving and tapestry art.



Synthetism (1888)

In 1888, Bernard developed a close working relationship at Pont-Aven with Gauguin, who had broken with Impressionism and whose latest masterpiece, The Vision After the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh) borrowed heavily from the younger man's style of Cloisonnism. Over a period of months, aided by their muse Madeleine Bernard (Emile's sister) they collaborated in founding Synthetism (also called synthetic Symbolism), in which Bernard's decorative painting was strengthened and enriched by Gauguin's injection of vision, symbolism and mood. Meanwhile, on the fringe of their relationship was the talented but restless Vincent van Gogh, who influenced and was influenced by the pair's work.

Symbolism (1889-90)

A poet and a writer, as well as a painter, Bernard studied religious mysticism and philosophy. In 1889 he spent the summer alone in Le Pouldu mixing religious art and symbolism in a series of paintings, while also trying to earn money in design and various types of applied art. All the while his former collaborator Gauguin was attracting more and more recognition as the leader of the visionary colourism practised by avant-garde art groups in Brittany and Paris. (According to some art historians, Bernard's rivalry with Gauguin led him out of spite, some years later, to switch to classicism.) In 1890 he devoted considerable energy to organizing a major exhibition showcasing the life and works of his friend Van Gogh. In 1891 he became associated with Les Vingt, a group of Symbolist artists that included the Bordeaux surrealist-style painter Odilon Redon and the Swiss symbolist and inventor of 'Parallelism', Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918).

In 1893 Bernard started travelling to Spain and North Africa. In 1894 he left France for a trip around Italy, after which he settled in Egypt for ten years. It was during his stay in Alexandria that, like his friend Louis Anquetin, he switched to a more classical style of painting. In 1904 he returned to Paris, where he founded and edited the arts journal La Renovation Esthetique, publishing a wide range of essays and articles on the work of modernists like Georges Seurat, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Redon. Devoting himself largely to writing, Bernard lived in Paris until his death in 1941 at the age of 72.


It sounds astonishing, but Emile Bernard was only 19 when he founded Cloisonnism and only 20 when he helped Gauguin to develop Synthetism. Unfortunately, this youthful maturity could not be sustained, and by the time he reached the age of 26, his period of creative painting was over. Even so, he still managed, in conjunction with Anquetin, to create a new artistic vision in the form of Cloisonnism, and played an essential role as facilitator and collaborator for Gauguin, with whom he founded Synthetism. His published correspondence also made a significant contribution to the understanding of modern art.

Paintings by Emile Bernard can be seen in many of the best art museums in France.

• For biographies of other symbolist artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of Pont-Aven painters, see: Homepage.

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