It was a surprise to discover we had been Gaston La Touche for much of our school life. A print of Manet’s painting ‘Un bar aux Folies Bergères’ with its odd mirror perspective was a popular choice in English schools some years ago. If you can tear your gaze away from the preoccupied eyes of the barmaid, behind her on the right is a reflection of a smart gentleman in a top hat. He is you, spectator of the scene. For your model brilliant Impressionist painter Manet asked his friend and fellow artist Gaston la Touche to pose.
To be Gaston La Touche would be no bad thing.
Gaston was a fortunate child born on 29 October 1854 to moderately wealthy parents who moved from Normandy to Saint Cloud, a Paris suburb. Childhood summer months were spent at his mother’s family home in Champsecret, a small village deep in the Orne on the edge of the Andaines forest.
A romantic heart
Long hours in the family library reading legends and myths imbued a love of an imagined past that never left him. The timeless beauty of the Orne forests provided a perfect backdrop to the old tales of love and romance.
Gaston had always drawn and painted the world he saw and was determined to be an artist. His parents initially despaired of Gaston’s dreams, but were kindly and paid for their young son to have lessons with M. Paul for three francs a month. The lessons lasted nearly 10 years.
This steady if conventional life was shattered in 1870 when the Prussian’s invaded France. Age just 17 Gaston left Saint Cloud with his family for the safety of their home in Champsecret.
No longer seeing with a child’s eyes
Older, wiser, shocked by war the teenage Gaston looked at rural life with new eyes. He saw past flower strewn meadows into tiny dark hovels. Gentle rustic scenes took on a new meaning as, perhaps for the first time, he understood the quiet desperation of lives permanently battling nature and poverty.
Back in Paris his family soon gave up all efforts to guide Gaston into a career they could understand. He was lazy and stubborn. Left to care for the garden he was found sketching plants as they died of his neglect. The family agreed to support him as he studied with the sculptor Eduard Dantan.
Gaston became extremely competent but was never quite successful. He regularly submitted rather uninspired art to the Paris salon but was not accepted. Then finally after thirteen attempts in 1875 a sculpture, a bas-relief medallion of François Jules Edmond Got, actor and dean of the Comedie-French, was accepted.
Sturdy, dull, realism
His paintings at this time were rather grey, stiff representations of difficult working class lives. Gaston was influenced strongly by Emile Zola, a writer who scraped away the glossy top coat of Paris life to reveal the poverty beneath.
Respect was mutual, in 1879 Gaston was chosen contribute illustrations to Zola’s famous book, the working class tragedy ‘L’Assommoir’.
By now his charm and sincerity had made Gaston a popular figure in artistic Paris society. He became friends with Eduard Manet and met Edgar Degas and Marcellin Desboutin Duranty. Somewhere along the way his name split, from Latouche, to the slightly more dignified La Touche. It was a minor conceit.
Meeting a mentor
Then, in his late 30’s, Gaston met an artist he had admired for many years. The brilliant printmaker Félix Henri Bracquemond. Now rarely talked about, in the late 19th century Félix was hugely successful. His etchings are incredibly detailed and realistic. Although unlike his own work, Félix was an early supporter of Impressionist art.
Gaston listened to Félix as a mentor, an inspiration.
During their many conversations, wise Félix unlocked a blithe spirit in Gaston; the carefree charming personality known to Gaston’s friends but long hidden from his art. He reawakened Gaston’s memories of a childhood in the forests of Normandy, and his love of old romantic fables. Félix gave Gaston his freedom, the freedom to paint the world of his dreams, the world as it should be.
The change is Gaston was sudden and remarkable. Encouraged by Félix and Manet his palette changed from murky browns to the colours of precious jewels lit by a warm sun. Careful brush strokes that once painfully recorded precise details of grim reality were replaced with the lightest touch of a brush in soft dashes.
So strong were his feelings that Gaston then did a truly shocking thing.
In 1881 Gaston collected up every one of his old, dark paintings and he destroyed them all. Just a few survive to reveal his early brilliant draftsmanship and compassion for the poor.
As idealism replaced realism, his accomplished rather dull paintings transformed into shimmering images of perfect world.
Painter of happiness
Anyone who has walked through an Orne forest on a sunny day will recognise the dappled sunlight piercing green leaves in many of his paintings.
Gaston was not just relying on his memories of Normandy forests, he inherited the house at Champsecret from his mother and returned regularly to paint. The secluded house and the lush garden offered privacy for his pretty, naked models as they posed for him as woodland nymphs.
Working in oils, pastels and watercolours, each picture is a glimpse of a story; we peek through white flowers to see his beautiful young wife as she feeds their firstborn, a son. A satyr hides as he admires a young woman, who has been bathing in a river, as she dresses. And parties, endless festivals filled with joyful couples twirling under strings of lights against a dark velvet sky.
La Belle Époque
The late 19th century was an optimistic time in Paris and would become known as ‘La Belle Époque’ ‘the beautiful time’. There was growing prosperity, science and technology were making huge leaps forward and art was brave. La Belle Époque Paris was celebrating life and Gaston’s new art reflected it’s dreams. Rich patrons paid well to enhance their homes with his work.
At last Gaston was receiving recognition. He was member of the most prestigious Paris art Salons and won medals at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 and 1900. France made him a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1900 and in the same year he was chosen as one of the artists to decorate panels in new restaurant Le Train Bleu at the Gare de Nord.
1900 should have been the year of his ultimate triumph but it was also the year Philippe, his eldest son, died. We can only imagine that this pushed his thoughts even further from reality.
The grateful student
Gaston was always grateful to his mentor and friend Félix and in 1906 painted his admiration in the painting ‘Bracquemond and his disciple’.
Prestigious Galerie Georges Petit in Paris held a retrospective of Gaston’s work in 1908, gathering over 300 examples; 40 were inspired by Champsecret and the countryside of the Orne. The following year France elevated Gaston to Officier of the Légion d’Honneur. He is awarded several official commissions for French ministry buildings.
A sudden death
On 11 July 1913 Gaston was working on a painting at his home 31 Rue Dailly in Saint Cloud when he was suddenly taken ill. An emergency operation for appendicitis was unsuccessful and he died age 58 the following day.
A famous artist of the day, Gaston’s death was reported across the world.
But as WW1 spread across Europe in 1914 Gaston’s art became unfashionable and unwanted. By the time the war was over in 1918 he was forgotten. His art judged to be not quite Impressionist, not quite important, definitely outdated.
Unlike work by Gaston’s friend Manet which sells for millions, Gaston’s paintings can now be bought for a few thousand euro. Which makes little sense to us.
Our match and getting closer to Gaston
We had expected to see the pretty home in our vintage postcard from the roadside but the house at Champsecret is very private indeed. Deep in the Orne, along roads few people have a reason to travel, it is part of a group of buildings called ‘Le Gros Doigt du Hamel’. We kept our distance.
You are welcome to walk in the Andaines forest and see the world that inspired this romantic artist.
The Boudin art museum in Honfleur, Normandy has the show ‘Being young in the time of the Impressionists’ until October 2016 with the lovely ‘Les Phlox’ painting by Gaston of his wife and their baby son, Philippe.