March 5, 2021

Artist Profile: Henri Lebasque (1856-1947), Painter of Joy and Light

Jay Kapadia

As France shifted from its Napoleonic shadow and into the industrial era, bourgeois society grew. The emergence of a leisure class shifted in the urban landscape with experiential hedonism, and artists took notice of this societal transformation, experimenting and pushing traditional boundaries.

Impressionism gained traction and took root in the modernist aesthetic. Manet, Monet, and Renoir emphasized the affinity of colors to each other over subject matter. Colors and subjects were presented as loose, atmospheric impressions derived from a fleeting moment. From here other movements including Fauvism, Pointillism, Les Nabis, and Post-Impressionism trace their etymology. One noteworthy painter, a savant of his generation, was Henri Lebasque. 

Henri Lebasque, photo c.1900

Hailed categorically as a Post-Impressionist painter, Henri Lebasque began his studies at the École régionale des beaux-arts d'Angers. In 1886, he moved to Paris to further his studies and for a period worked under Leon Bonnet, an established portrait painter. Soon, Lebasque became acquainted with Maximilien Luce, Paul Signac, and George Seurat, adopting Pointillism and their color theory into his paintings. Eventually, he developed friendships with other artist heavyweights such as Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard of the Les Nabis group, adopting somber domestic interiors and landscapes as his favored subjects. 

In 1903, Lebasque became one of the founding members of the Salon d’Autumme, the organization would later go on to host the inaugural exhibition of the Fauvists, providing Lebasque with a new aesthetic to experiment and assimilate. A few years thereafter, at the suggestion of his friend Henri Manguin, Lebaesque decided to travel to Southern France, where he eventually took up permanent residence. He remained a lifelong council member of the Salon d’Autumme, but it was during his tenure in French Riviera his oeuvre came into full fruition. 

Henri Lebasque (French, 1865-1937), Woman Reading, Watercolor on Paper, c. 1910

The focal point of Lebasque’s subject became summerscapes, often with members of his family as his models. Woman Reading exemplifies his sobriquet as the Painter of Light and Joy, and escapism he sought when relocating from Paris. Compositionally formative, the watercolor awakens a tender warmth from the brightness of perceived sunlight breaking through the tree line, pouring from the garden onto the terrace. In the corner we see an idyllic, yet anonymous, woman reading quietly. The slant of her hat, hiding her face, creating an intimate act of focus. In doing so, Lebasque’s scarcity of detail “achieves greater intimacy with his subjects...coaxing greater expression from the limbs and body poses of his sitters.” 

Henri Lebasque achieved some commercial success in his career. His works since have been collected internationally and can be found in the permanent collection such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and MoMa in New York.