Henri Lebasque first visited the French Riveria in 1906 at the suggestion of the Fauve painter Henri Manguin. In 1924, Lebasque relocated to the region to permanently take advantage of its unparalleled light. In the intervening years, the artist who would earn the sobriquet "Painter of Joy and Light" returned often. In 1914, for example, he brought his family to the town of Sainte-Maxime, about halfway between Cannes and St. Tropez. Here, he would undertake a series of family portraits set on the terrace of their oceanfront house.
Lisa A. Banner interprets the Sainte-Maxime Terrasse series as an example of Lebasque's attempt "to resolve thematic or compositional problems in his work by painting the same subject several times in nearly identical attitudes" (intro., Lebasque, exh. cat., Montgomery Gallery, San Francisco, 1986, n.p.). As the strikingly similar painting La Terrasse (fig. 1) reveals, the present work represents one of "a group of paintings done in various shapes and sizes, of the same family group breakfasting on the terrace, with sunlight streaming in through the open arches" (ibid., n.p.).
Both paintings feature a frame of foliage around two sides of the canvas, but Lebasque moves this border from the left and upper edges of the canvas in La Terrasse to the upper and right edges in Jeunes filles sur une terrasse. The fruit that spills across the table in the earlier painting is replaced with lush red flowers in the present work's lower right corner. Finally, the introspective, even isolated feeling of the young women in the first painting is supplanted by a firm sense of their interconnectedness in the present canvas.
Banner locates in Lebasque's work "a characteristic mysterious aspect--the absence of detail in his portrayal of faces." She goes on to note that the artist "achieves greater intimacy with his subjects by this technique, leaving them the anonymity of disguise by careful omission of facial distinction and coaxing greater expression from the limbs and body poses of his sitters" (ibid). Indeed, in the present composition, the five figures' dispositions are conveyed more through their physical attitudes than their miens. One figure is turned away from the viewer entirely, and three others wear sun hats which further mask their already ambiguous facial expressions.
Though their faces are obscured, the angles of the figures' heads, emphasized by the slants of their bonnets, create an intimate play of regards. The viewer's eye first rests on the girl with the black-banded hat, then follows her gaze toward the pink-clad figure holding out her necklace. The slope of this girl's glance then directs the onlooker's eye toward the woman in blue, whose own down-turned profile gestures toward the child playing with the dog in the canvas's lower left corner. By choreographing this subtle dance of gazes, the artist invites the spectator into the close circle of his family. Though the scene takes place outdoors, under the dappled light of the French Riviera, Lebasque achieves an intimacy that rivals the interior domesticity of his contemporaries Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard.
(fig. 1) Henri Lebasque, La Terrasse, 1913-1914. Private collection, California.