Matching our postcard of Rouen cathedral we were overwhelmed by the choice of stories to tell.
We will post about Rouen favourites the fearsome Vikings, and clever Flaubert one day. But today a lesser known son of Rouen, an artist, has grabbed our attention and spattered it with a rainbow of oil paint. We have discovered some shocking histories hidden away in Normandy but this isn’t one of them.
The Foire Saint Foraine is on in Rouen at the moment, as it has been every autumn for more than 300 years. Looking into the fair’s heritage we came across a small painting from 1905 or 6. The painting is in Impressionist style and shows the fair on a damp Normandy day. It fascinated us with direct brush strokes and evocative colours that so simply but flawlessly recalled a long forgotten Rouen day.
Life in mono
Then, looking into this for us unknown artist we were struck by the many photos of his life. His was one of the first generations to have their memories set on glass plates and photographic paper.
The photos start in 1896, age 10 with a serious face, it is a formal portrait. But photography is already moving out of the studio.
Here he is age 12, painting outside with his father on one of their Sunday painting walks along the Seine. His father, also Robert, was a librarian, writer and close friend of the celebrated author Guy de Maupassant.
A Rouen intellectual, the elder Robert was also a sensitive man who encouraged his son’s creativity and had just bought him his first box of oil paints.
At age 14 one of Robert’s paintings was exhibited in a central Rouen
photographer’s window, just across L’Hotel du Dauphin at d’Espagne. In that hallowed space Monet, Gaugin, Degas and other artistic luminaries shared their work.
It was Robert’s painting the art critic Georges Dubosc chose to review one chilly March day in 1900. There is something to love in Robert Antoine Pinchon’s view of the world.
1903 was a good year for 17 year old Robert, now a full time art student at École des Beaux-Arts. Paintings in Rouen exhibitions were well received and local hero Monet went on record enthusiastically commenting that Robert’s work had “a surprising touch in the service of a surprising eye”.
By the time of this next photograph with his fellow art students at de Rouen in 1905, around the time of our Fair painting, Robert is 19 and holds his first major exhibition with 24 paintings in Rouen. In the same year he exhibits in the Salon d’Automne in Paris.
Robert has absorbed the lessons of impressionism and unlike fellow student and friend Marcel Duchamp will not waver far from this style for the rest of his life. But in Paris in 1905 he saw a new painting style that answered creative questions he had long asked. They were considered outrageous; the Fauves, ‘wild beasts’ of art.
A little art history
To understand the horror Fauve’s bright colours aroused in the hearts of the establishment we have to remember that Impressionism was revolutionary just 40 years earlier. By 1873 Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Degas and Cezanne had been denied exhibition space in the traditional salons for so many years they were forced to create their own Paris show.
A show that was then described with disgust as exhibiting mere ‘impressions’ by humorist and critic Louis Leroy. One wonders just who is laughing now.
But forward to 1905. The new Fauve art with its shouting colours is described as “the barbaric and naïve games of a child who plays with a box of colours” (Marcel Nicolle in the Journal de Rouen). Robert loved it.
Back in Rouen he and fellow artists feel themselves moving away from conventional art establishments and cheerfully create a new ‘collective’ The XXX, The 30. They write a manifesto.
A welcome member of the group, Robert is also still exhibited alongside by Monet at the Musée des Beaux-Arts Rouen. His Impressionist roots still singing from every canvas.
Hidden in a race for change
Is this why his fame has reached not much further than France? Was he not enough of a revolutionary? Does art have to be constant change to be admired?
Robert was founding member in 1909 of ‘Société Normande de Peinture Moderne’, a diverse group mixing independent painters, sculptors, writers, poets and musicians in Rouen.
We can only imagine how exciting it must have been to be young and creative in Rouen before the first world war. The world was moving fast and art was keeping up. So many brilliant minds contributed to the group; Dumont, Dufy, Matisse, Gosselin and of course Pinchon. They exhibited every year until 1914.
The world’s pain
The next photo of Robert is in 1917, as a prisoner of war in Germany. War is no place for an artist. By the time this bizarrely glamorous photo of two prisoners is taken Robert, who was mobilised on 5 August 1914, has been badly injured twice, patched up and sent back to war.
Back in Rouen his desperate father does all he can to keep his son alive; he exhibits Robert’s art in the 9th Salon des artistes Rouennais.
Somehow Robert escapes imprisonment and makes his way across Europe, arriving home on 20 December 1918. This date is carefully recorded on wiki but cannot find the source. The date was probably etched on his father’s heart for eternity.
Bravery in a new world
Of course Robert came out of the war a damaged man, who did not? He reportedly said the war ‘shattered’ his career. In 1918 he was in shock, disillusioned with the world and embittered at the fate of his and millions of other’s lives.
It was the countryside around Rouen that helped to restore his mind, and his faith in art. The rhythm of the seasons, the warm summer sun in a Normandy orchard, gentle breezes shivering dew drenched grasses. The silky slow Seine.
He returned to paint his beloved Normandy in his favourite way, en plein air – outside. After the war his paintings somehow still celebrate life, nature, the world. Perhaps even more so.
A successful man
For the rest of his life Robert stayed faithful to a painting style that lovers of Impressionism and Fauve will admire. He became a man of considerable reputation with regular exhibitions in Rouen and Paris.
In 1925 he became Vice President of the 16th Salon de la Societe des Artistes Rounnaise et de Normandie. On 1 July 1932, Pinchon was admitted to the estimable Académie des sciences, belles-lettres et arts de Rouen.
Robert Antoine Pinchon was sought out, his art admired, opinion appreciated and his skills rewarded. His home with Elise (Elise Louise Joséphine Bance when they married in 1921) was in the smart Bois-Guillaume, above Rouen. Their son Claude, named for his hero, was born in December 1922.
It was here that he died, too young, on 3 January 1943 age just 56. We do not know why he died so young. We do know he had been deeply saddened that the world was gripped by war.
Last act of grace
He last exhibited between 16 May and 15 June 1943 in Rouen. His last creative act was to take part in a publication ‘Rouen et l’Exode’. It was a collaboration with 20 creative friends, to raise funds for imprisoned artists.
Nowhere in our research did we find a quote from Robert, a review, or a paragraph on his views about art and the world he lived in. They doubtless exist in books long out of print. All we have, and perhaps it is better this way, is his art.
We can see Robert’s world through his paintings. We can understand a little of what he valued; the beauty of sunlight shining through soft petals; cheerful yellow sunflowers interrupting rows of vegetables in a cared for Normandy garden. Tidy boats lined up in the busy Seine and the powerfully engineered bridges that span this timeless watercourse.
Robert always returned to Rouen. His world was beautiful and it is still there.