Born in Paris in 1839, Louis Emile Adan began his study of art in the 1850s, a decade of political tumult and revolution in France and throughout Europe, with workers demanding fair wages, decent working conditions and universal male suffrage. In February 1848, French republicans overthrew Louis-Philippe, the so-called “Citizen King”, and established the Second Republic. The well known poet, Alphonse de Lamartine was appointed president of the provisional government, and subsequently replaced by an elected president, Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, in December of 1848. The Second Republic was short-lived however; in December 1851, Louis Napoléon staged a coup d’état by dissolving the National Assembly, and one year later, on December 2, 1852, he was officially proclaimed emperor. It was in this social and political environment that the young Louis Adan began his career as a painter.
Little is known of his earliest introduction to the visual arts, but he was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts, where he initially studied with François-Edouard Picot (1786 - 1866), a successful painter who had himself been part of Jacques-Louis David’s studio, and who was one of the most popular professors at the École. Adan probably began studying with Picot sometime in the late 1850s. He made his Salon debut in 1863, a year distinguished by the protest staged by artists when the conservative jury rejected two-thirds of the art works submitted to the Salon. The emperor resolved the debate by issuing a proclamation announcing the opening of a separate exhibition nearby so that the public could judge the merits of the art for itself. The resulting Salon des refusés became a source of further controversy when paintings by Édouard Manet and James McNeill Whistler in particular provoked critical outrage—and public curiosity.
Meanwhile, one of the most popularly acclaimed paintings at the Salon exhibition was the Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1899), which earned the artist a position at the Institut de France and, in 1864, a professorship at the École des Beaux-Arts. The twenty-four-year-old Adan must have begun his studies with Cabanel in 1864 or shortly thereafter, and he continued to list himself as a “pupil of Cabanel” in the Salon exhibition programs at least until 1886. As C. H. Stranahan recounts in her 1888 history of French painting: “No fewer than 112 exhibitors of the Salon of 1886 signed themselves ‘Pupil of Cabanel.’ These are as varied in style as they are numerous, which is an indication of their teacher’s greatness as a master: he develops talent without making slavish imitators.” [i] Stranahan’s comments also indicate that Adan’s fellow students included military painters, Orientalists, genre painters and naturalists as well as more conventional academic painters, surely an environment that encouraged wide-ranging aesthetic discussions among the young artists.
Adan’s work during the 1860s embraced the mainstream tradition of neo-classicism espoused by J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867) who was a much revered figure by the 1860s. In fact, Adan’s painting of 1867, Les vêpres dans la Chapelle Sixtine [Vespers at the Sistine Chapel], was an homage to Ingres’s 1820 painting showing Pope Pius VII seated in the Sistine Chapel. [ii] This tribute to Ingres, who had died in January 1867, was undoubtedly intended not only as a statement of Adan’s admiration, but also of his aspiration to continue the tradition that Ingres represented. Although much of his work is undated, he seems to have pursued this goal in genre paintings such as His First School Report, which features a domestic scene similar to those of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century artists.
By the mid 1870s, as France began rebuilding after the ruinous Franco-Prussian War, Adan appears to have focused increasingly on scenes of daily life, perhaps following the Realist dictate to paint images of one’s own time. He was rewarded for this effort with a third class medal for Dernier jour de vente [Last Day of the Sale] at the 1875 Salon. [iii] It seems likely that it was also during this period that Adan painted his first rural scenes like Demoiselles en visite à la ferme [Young Women Visiting the Farm]; this agrarian theme will continue into the 1880s and 1890s as Adan became more focused on naturalist themes.
Simultaneously, Adan seems to have taken an interest in painting elegant young women in the style of portrait painters such as Carolus-Duran or Alfred Stevens. These images had considerable popular appeal, especially when they featured fashionable clothing in the latest styles. It was probably during these years that Adan’s growing success allowed him to move to one of the new apartment buildings at 75, rue de Courcelles in the 8th arrondissement, a section of Paris that was part of the extensive urban renewal projects conducted under the direction of Baron Hausmann during the Second Empire. Adan’s career seems to have been well established by this time, and his work continued to receive positive critical notice; in 1882, he was awarded a second class medal at the Salon for Soir d’automne [Autumn Evening].
The decade of the 1880s was very busy, both with annual painting submissions to the Salon and with an expanding role as a book illustrator. Beginning in 1885, Adan illustrated Les Fables de La Fontaine, and Le Fables de Florian, both published by Éditions Jouast in Paris. These were followed by illustrations for Gérard de Nerval’s Les Filles de Feu (Paris, 1888), André Theuriet’s Gertrude (Paris, H. Launette et cie, G. Boudet,1890) and Gustave Flaubert’s Coeur simple (Paris : A. Ferroud, 1894). As an illustrator, Adan typically used the name Emile Adan or L. Emile Adan, perhaps to distinguish this work from his paintings.
Toward the end of the decade, Adan’s painting changed significantly. His earlier curiosity about Realist themes took on a new urgency as the artist explored the rigors of rural life. The enigmatic painting La Sortie de l’église de Ciboure [Leaving the Church of Ciboure] of 1887 depicts a somber scene of black-clad Basque parishioners walking across a stone plaza outside an equally foreboding stone church. A beggar woman seated on the chilly pavers leans against a stone pier, looking as if she had been sitting there for days. The exact meaning of this painting is not clear, but it may reflect the economic situation in the Basque country of southwestern France or perhaps a local political situation in the coastal city of Ciboure. The tone, however, is far removed from the world of fashionable young women of Adan’s 1870s work.
By the middle of the 1880s, Adan was actively engaged in the naturalist movement. He was grouped together with Jules Breton, Léon Lhermitte and Jules Bastien-Lepage in Stranahan’s discussion of “true art” during the nineteenth century, and more recently, he was included in a 2004 Florentine exhibition on naturalism and symbolism, again in the company of Léon Lhermitte. [iv] In his paintings from this period, it is obvious that Adan has found his own voice, and that he is committed to exploring the hardships of agricultural life for the farm workers. A painting such as Le Soir (Evening) from 1889 demonstrates the consummate skill in composition and drawing that is typical of École-trained artists, but what is distinguished about this work is the empathy that Adan expresses for the women and children who are still laboring in the fields as the sun goes down. His preparatory drawings of these women further underscore that he was no longer captured by pretty faces, but by the dignity of toil-weary mothers who take their youngest children with them into the fields every day. This is work that reflects the influence of Gustave Courbet and the Realists, and undoubtedly, of Adan’s colleague and fellow-student, Bastien-Lepage.
Adan’s submissions for the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris showcased his naturalist aesthetic as did his 1890 Salon submission, Les Bruleurs d’herbes [Grass Burners]. This was the type of painting that came to the attention of the American collector, Charles Warren Cram, who was also actively acquiring work by Jules Breton. Records indicate that Cram purchased Le Soir and perhaps also Soir d’Automne in 1889. [v] This introduction to the American art market must have served Adan well in expanding his clientele beyond France.
His reputation as a distinguished painter was further recognized in 1892 when he became a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor; and again in 1900 when he was asked to sit on the jury of both the Salon and the Salon des Artistes Français.
In the years surrounding the turn-of-the-century, Adan’s attention was drawn to more domestic—and seemingly more personal—images. One of his few securely dated paintings, Motherhood of 1898, shows a woman watching her baby asleep in a beribboned cradle. The composition is an elegant study in grays, whites and abundant light, but it is the sense of having just glimpsed a private moment between mother and child that makes it memorable, and suggests that this is a family scene that Adan witnessed in his own home. Similarly, the image known as Chemin de la Cascade offers a view of an unguarded moment when a young woman stops on her hike to fix a problem with her shoe. Again, the tonal color palette is largely grey, white and the greens of the woodland setting, but the young woman’s stockings (shockingly visible for the time) are bright red. There can be no doubt that this is a “Modern Woman” who goes hiking alone and dares to wear slightly risqué red stockings. As with Motherhood, it is tempting to wonder who this woman might have been and what her relationship was to Adan.
The last few decades of Adan’s life are curiously obscure. His work was included in the art exhibition at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915; and then again in an exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio where the same painting, The Holy Family, was also featured. [vi] Presumably, his work continued to find a good reception in the American market well into the twentieth century. He also continued to exhibit annually at the Salon in Paris until his death in 1937.
Janet Whitmore, Ph.D.
Musée des beaux-arts, Nantes, France
Musée des beaux-arts, Pau, France
Musée des Ursulines, Mâcon, France
Musée national du Sport, Paris
Pfister Art Collection, Milwaukee
Widener University Art Gallery, Chester, Pennsylvania
[i] C. H. Strahan, A History of French Painting from Its Earliest to its Latest Practice, including an Account of the French Academy of Painting, its Salons Schools of Instruction and Regulations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888) 401.
[ii] Ingres’s painting was badly damaged by an impoverished young woman, Valentine Contrel, who hoped to make a political point in 1907. See “Girl Demolishes Louvre Painting, Slashes Ingres’s “Sistine Chapel” and Gives Herself Up to the Police”, The New York Times, September 22, 1907. Adan’s similar painting is today in the collection of the Musée des Ursulines in Mâcon, France.
[iii] Jules Martin, Nos peintres et sculpteurs, graveurs, dessinaterus (Paris: Ernest Flammarion, Editeur, c. 1897) 10.
[iv] C. H. Strahan, A History of French Painting from Its Earliest to its Latest Practice, including an Account of the French Academy of Painting, its Salons Schools of Instruction and Regulations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888) 479. The Italian exhibition was held at the Galleria Vetrina 900 in Florence in 2004. See the exhibition catalogue by Marco Fagioli and Francesca Marini, Descrivere o Narrare: Disegni Francesi tra Naturalismo e Simbolismo (Firenze: AIÓN Edizioni, 2004).
[v] The correspondence between Charles Warren Cram and Louis Adan is held by the Thomas J. Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. See letters from Adan to Cram dated 5 mai 1889; 26 mai 1889; and 26 juin 1889 regarding the purchase of Le Soir as well as other paintings.
[vi] Catalogue: An Exhibition of French and Belgian Art from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, November 1916, Toledo Museum of Art.