Louis Welden Hawkins was a cosmopolitan figure. He was born at Essingen, near Stuttgart, the son of an Austrian aristocrat, Louise Sopransi, Baroness von Welden, and a British naval officer. Brought up in England, he joined the navy at the age of fifteen, but after a few years he left to become an artist, and about 1870 he settled in France. He lived there for the rest of his life, adopting French nationality in 1895.
The mid-1870s found Hawkins living in Paris in considerable poverty, sharing lodgings with the Irish writer George Moore (1852-1933), who was his younger cousin. At this date, Moore had thoughts of an artistic career, and together they attended the Acadmie Julian and the Acadmie des Beaux-Arts, studying at the former under W.A. Bouguereau and Jules Lefebvre, and at the latter under Gustave Boulanger. Hawkins appears in Rodolphe Julian's painting Une acadmie de peinture, exhibited at the Salon of 1878. He also figures as Marshall in Moore's Confessions of a Young Man (1888), rather as George du Maurier's Parisian friends of the 1850s were to do in Trilby, his romanticised account of the vie de bohme published in 1894. In fact Hawkins was an intimate of du Maurier's idle apprentice', James McNeill Whistler.
Like so many young artists at this period, Hawkins was attracted to Grez-sur-Loing, a village not far from Barbizon, on the other side of the Forest of Fontainebleau. Corot had painted there in 1863, but it was only in the 1870s that an artistic community was established, comparable to that formed at Barbizon twenty years earlier. The village seemed to have everything that appealed to the artistic temperament. It was intensely picturesque, boasting a medieval church, a ruined castle, and a mill. The river was ideal for swimming and boating, and there was a cheap and cheerful inn, the Pension Chevillon. Robert Louis Stevenson described it as 'a pretty and very melancholy village...A low bridge of many arches choked with sedge; great fields of white and yellow water-lilies; poplars and willows innumberable; and about it all such an atmosphere of sadness and slackness, one could do nothing but get into the boat and out of it again, and yawn for bedtime.'
Most of the Grez community were British, American or Scandinavian, and nearly all were young, some of them little more than students. The first to arrive were a group of pupils from the atelier of the portrait painter Carolus-Duran. They included R.A.M. Stevenson, Robert Louis' cousin, who was later to distinguish himself as an art critic, the Irishman Frank O'Meara, who remained until his early death in 1888 and became a sort of genius loci, and the American Will H. Low, whose reminiscences, A Chronicle of Friendships (1908), is an essential source of information about this circle. They were quickly followed by John Singer Sargent, Carolus-Duran's most brilliant pupil, who later recalled the place as 'a veritable nest of bohemians,' and by Louis Welden Hawkins himself, who seems to have haunted the village for several years. By 1877 some of the original group were leaving, but they were followed by many others. Indeed the 1880s were the heyday of the Grez community, the years when the village set an indelible stamp on the development of international impressionism. Robert Louis Stevenson, discussing Grez in an article on 'Village Communities of Painters' which he wrote for the Magazine of Art in 1884, observed that he had seen the bridge over the river Loing, one of the most popular local subjects, 'beaming from the walls of a hundred exhibitions,' the Salon, the Royal Academy, the recent Exposition Universelle in Paris. Among the artists most deeply involved at this period were the Englishman William Scott of Oldham, the Scotts James Guthrie and Arthur Melville, the Irishmen John Lavery and Roderic O'Connor, the American Alexander Harrison, and the Swede Carl Larsson. Larsson's compatriot August Strindberg was another visitor. Men of letters were always a part of this artistic epiphany, as indeed were musicians. Delius was to live at Grez for many years.
Christie's has handled two important Grez pictures in London in the recent past. Lavery's The Bridge at Grez of 1883 (fig.1) was offered on 8 December 1998 (lot 17), realising a world record price for a work by the artist of 1,321,500; while at the time of going to press Frank O'Meara's Rverie of 1882 has yet to appear in the Irish Sale to be held on 20 May 1999, lot 189. Louis Welden Hawkins Les Prludes makes a fascinating sequel to these two masterpieces.
As F.G. Stephens observed when reviewing the Salon of 1882 for the Athenaeum, Hawkins may have been taught by three pillars of the academic establishment, but they had a minimal impact on his work. His true mentors in the early 1880s were Jules Bastien-Lepage, the leading representative of realism, whose paintings consistently aroused controversy during Hawkins's most impressionable years, and that lofty exponent of a restrained and monumental symbolism, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. These influence were not as irreconcilable as might be imagined, since Bastien himself often sought to put realism at the service of historical and even mystical themes; and certainly many of the Grez painters saw their work in terms of a synthesis between them. Lavery's biographer, Walter Shaw Sparrow, describes the impact which the two French masters had on his subject's Parisian circle, quoting Alexander Roche's reminiscence that 'ardour and tobacco were burned freely before (their) shrines.'
In 1881 Hawkins made his debut at the Salon, showing two paintings of which Les Orphelins (Hotel de Ville, Pouyastruc, Hautes Pyrnes) was by far the larger (125 x 160 cm.) and more compelling. Showing a young couple in a country graveyard, it paid full tribute to both Bastien and Puvis in its combination of a realistic setting and an intensely poetic mood. Curiously enough, its effect may not have been entirely due to the painter. In his autobiography, John Lavery recalled how two American brothers, George and Louis, came to Grez to learn how to paint. 'George showed a certain aptitude for profundity as a critic,' he wrote, and to this 'a well known artist of the day, Weldon (sic) Hawkins, owed at least one success.'
Hawkins had done an enormous canvas in the forest. Two peasants, a boy and a girl, had posed for him, and the title of the picture was 'Young Lovers'. When the work was framed and on the eve of being sent to the Salon, Hawkins gave a party and invited a number of us to wish him luck and to criticise. It was here that George came forward and suggested that in view of the fact that the young lovers were looking so miserable it would be better to call them orphans. This trifling alteration was made and the affecting picture was accepted with acclamations by the Salon jury and purchased by the State. The Figaro and other journals combined to congratulate the artist on the dignity and pathos depicted with such true insight. At the Vernissage, collectors gathered round him ready to purchase anything he might have in the studio.
All went well for a year and then the demand for his work became less pressing. Soon there was no demand at all and something had to be done about it. A brilliant idea occureed to him. He would visit his tailor, achieve as opulent an appearance as possible, go to Paris, visit all the dealers to whom he was unknown in person, especially in his present rig, and ask to see work by the famous Hawkins in his latest period....'If Monsieur could wait for a few days they were sure they could get some'...He rushed back to Grez in time to meet a revived market, which, however, did not last long when the supposed patron did not turn up as he had promised.
However true all this may be, there is no doubt that Les Orphelins made a great impression at the Salon, gaining the artist a 'medaille troisime classe' and being bought for the Luxembourg. A reproductive etching spread knowledge of the composition still further, and it became a seminal work in the evolution of the Grez style of the early 1880s. Its influence seems apparent in such important examples as Stott's The Ferry of 1882 (private collection), Lavery's On the Loing: An Afternoon Chat of 1884 (Ulster Museum, Belfast), or the series of paintings of women absorbed in melancholy introspection on the river bank which Frank O'Meara painted during these years.
Les Prludes is undated, and has not been identified with any exhibited work. It does not seem to have been shown at the Salon, but Hawkins also exhibited at the Salon de la Socit des Artistes franais from 1881. Whatever its exact date, however, there seems to be little doubt of the picture's relationship with Les Orphelins. All the salient features of the larger picture's composition - the open piece of ground, the screen of trees and buildings in the middle distance, and the two young people standing to the right - reappear in Les Prludes. The colouring, a typically early Grez harmony of muted greens, greys, blues and browns, is similar; and the sentiment and use of symbolism are comparable, especially if Lavery is right and the figures in Les Orphelins were conceived as a pair of lovers. For the title of Les Prludes seems to imply that here too we are witnessing a rustic courtship, in this case its early stages.
There are of course differences. The time of year in Les Prludes is high summer, and this corresponds to the young lovers' mood of tremulous expectation. The girl, dressed in white, perhaps as an image of purity, holds a flower that the boy has given her, clasping it carefully in both hands as if it were a precious object, while he, having brought not only a flower but a guitar to press his suit, looks on anxiously at the reception of his gift. The setting in Les Orphelins, on the other hand, is autumnal, and the two lovers, if we read them as such, seem gripped by some deep forboding as they gaze at a grave where perhaps a parent lies buried or which may even symbolise their own lost innocence. However, even to draw these contrasts is to point to an underlying relationship between the two pictures which seems to call for further investigation. Les Prludes was described in the catalogue of the Hawkins Exhibiiton held at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, in 1993 as 'in style and theme a logical sequel to Les Orphelins.' This is fine as far as it goes, but it is tempting to believe that the matter is not yet fully resolved.
Hawkins continued to paint Grez subjects. The two he showed at the Salon of 1882 - La Paysanne et les Oies and Le Lavoir de Grez - again had critical success. This indeed was a vintage Salon, at which several of the Grez artists and their associates shone, including Stott, O'Meara and Sargent, and which also contained major examples of their heroes Puvis and Bastien-Lepage, not to mention Manet's last great masterpiece, Un Bar aux Folies-Bergre (Courtauld Institute Galleries, London). But gradually Hawkins's style changed, and he became a much more thoroughgoing symbolist. He knew many of the writers involved in the movemnet - Paul Adam, Jean Lorrain, Robert de Montesquiou, and above all Stphane Mallarm, whose famous Tuesday evening receptions in the rue de Rome he regularly attended. He tried to come closer to Puvis de Chavannes, exhibiting at the Salon de la Socit Nationale des Beaux-Arts, of which Puvis was the moving spirit, and applying, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to become his assistant. Most radical of all, in 1894 he began to exhibit with the Salon de la Rose + Croix, launched two years earlier at the Galerie Durand-Ruel by the self-styled Sr Pladan, that most exotic of all the flowers in the Symbolist hothouse, whose ambition was to foster 'decadent' art of the most bizarre and self-indulgent kind.
Hawkins did not entirely abandon plein air or realist painting, finding it easier to sell (he was always short of money) than his more esoteric productions. Nonetheless the most significant works of this later period are a number of ventures into decorative work and a series of highly-finished paintings based on the theme of the half-length female figure and clearly indebted, both in style and feeling, to the early Italian masters, Drer, and the English Pre-Raphaelites. Perhaps the best-known example is the portrait of the crusading journalist Sverine (Muse d'Orsay, Paris), a work of 1895 in which the sitter is cast in the typically Symbolist role of a priestess or sphinx. More usual are ideal groups of nude figures painted in tones of brown and gold and illustrating abstract concepts. Two of these have been sold comparatively recently by Christie's: Les Auroles (1 December 1989, lot 1074) and Innocence (25 October 1991, lot 67); while a third, Girls Singing Music by Gabriel Fabre, was included in the British Symbolism Exhibition held at the Tate Gallery in 1997, no. 128. These paintings have beauty of a kind, and are certainly strange; but their appeal is of a totally different order to that of Les Orphelins and Les Prludes.
Fig. 1, Sir John Lavery, The Bridge at Grez, oil on canvas, 30 x 72 in. (76 x 184 cm.), sold at Christie's, London, 8 December 1998, lot 17. (1,321,500.)