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BIOGRAPHY - Léon Germain Pelouse (1838 - 1891)

Léon-Germain Pelouse, a mid-nineteenth century landscape painter, has more recently often been overshadowed by his Barbizon contemporaries, despite his popularity during the period and the execution of several notable works. His compositions show an interest in the natural landscape of France; the same interest as those of the Barbizon painters. An enthusiastic writer (A, D.M., “Art and the Paris Exposition,” Scribner’s Monthly, December 1878, pg. 277) wrote “Next…is Pelouse. His style is impressive, his pictures rich and daring in color, the execution marked by the greatest breadth and freedom of handling.” Despite never undertaking any formal artistic training, Pelouse established himself as an artist inspired by the beauty of nature.

Born in 1838 in Pierrelaye in the Seine-et-Oise region of France, near Paris, Pelouse never seemed destined to become a painter. Rather than beginning a career as an artist, he began working at sixteen as a traveling sales representative in Roubaix. If nothing else, this work introduced Pelouse to the varying landscapes and villages in France. He continued this work for an extensive period of time, and also served in the military for a short term, before beginning his artistic pursuits. During his time in the military he executed his first painting in his quarters, after his colonel gave him permission to do so.

In his late twenties he left his first profession behind him to pursue a career as a painter. His resolve to become an artist was so strong that he had convinced his family to let him practice his career of choice. But, instead of immediately entering an École des Beaux-Arts atelier like the other artists who were seeking public recognition, Pelouse never studied under any teacher and became his own master, a remarkable fact given that his paintings attained such success.  Eugène Montrosier, in Les Artistes Modernes: Peintres de Genre (Paris: Libraire Ch. Tallandier, pg. 101), thought that he did indeed have a master and wrote:

One could write more about Mr. Pelouse who, without a master, by only the force of his determination, arrived after some years to take one of the top places among the modern landscape painters. To suggest that Mr. Pelouse did not have a master, is perhaps not correct. He did have one, sincere, profound, always varied, always moving: Nature!

For Pelouse, nature was perhaps the most significant influence on his work, this, despite the fact that he expressed regrets not to have known, early in his career, many other landscapists.  He said, “The unfortunate thing for me…at the time when I was beginning, was that, having not worked in any atelier, I didn’t know any painter. I was even ignorant that landscape painters could cherish certain landscapes over others.” (Montrosier, pg. 102)  On this note, he quickly learned of the small village of Vaux-de-Cernay and moved there in 1870, only to be driven out three months later by the invading Prussians. As the story goes, the Prussians ransacked the majority of the resident’s houses, save for Pelouse’s, whose house and studio they regarded with such wonder that they could not bring themselves to destroy the work inside. Once the Prussians retreated, Pelouse returned to Vaux-de-Cernay and devoted himself whole-heartedly to his work.

Pelouse’s relocation to Vaux-de-Cernay signals his further association with the other major landscape painters of the period, who, while working in other areas, especially Barbizon around the Forest of Fontainebleau, displayed the same interest in natural rendering of details in a landscape. Each of these artists turned away from the historic landscape that held sway over many Salon jurors of the pe riod. Instead, they sought out the landscape of France that they could see and experience and portrayed it as such. This was also during the period when landscape painting was becoming more established in the hierarchy of painting, whereas historical or mythological paintings were considered the finest form.  Despite having no master himself, students were drawn to Pelouse’s residence in Vaux-de-Cernay, seeking his counsel and advice.

Following nature as a guide, Pelouse also kept abreast of the advances of other artists working in plein air while developing his own style and dark palette. He debuted at the Salon of 1865 with Environs de Precy - Oise, souvenir d’automne (Near Precy - Oise, souvenir of autumn).  His next two Salon entries, those of 1868 and 1869 were works inspired by the landscape in the Brittany region, especially Pont-Aven, where he spent time working and gathering ideas and finding himself attracted to the sea. In 1873 he earned his first medal, a second class award, for Vallée de Cernay (Cernay Valley). In 1876 he was given a first-class medal, “recompense which for thirty years had not been given to a landscape painter,” (Montrosier, 102) for Une coupe de bois à Senlisse - Seine-et-Oise (A Felling in the forest of Senlisse – Seine-et-Oise) and a second class medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1878 where he exhibited a number of works. This same year he was also given France’s highest honor when he was named Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. All of these works show Pelouse focusing intently on landscape painting in various regions around France, most notably those of Normandy and Brittany.  

Pelouse’s final Salon showing was in 1890 where he exhibited Bords de Seine; l’Ile de Tribouillard (Banks of the Seine; the Tribouillard Island) and La Seine, à Poses; vue du barrage (The Seine, at Poses, view of the dam).  The previous year he had exhibited at the 1889 Exposition Universelle where he earned a gold medal.

By the end of his career his style of landscape painting had been sufficiently accepted by the Salon juries that besides his awards, he served as a jury member seven times.  While during the latter part of his career the Impressionists began experimenting with their own style of landscape painting, Pelouse never attached himself to this approach, instead keeping the in the tradition of the older Barbizon school. He died on July 31, 1891 in Cernay. There is little doubt that his work helped maintain the importance of the landscape tradition, while shifting the focus to regions that Pelouse knew intimately and well.

Selected Museums

Metropolitan Museum of Art – Janvier, Cernay, près de Rambouillet
Musée d’Orsay – Grandcamp, vue de la plage; Souvenir de Cernay
Quimper – Le Chemin de Rustephan
Carcassonne - Grandcamp, marée basse
Le Havre – Prairies Inondées, Brecehan