Jacques-Émile Blanche and André Gide had a lifelong, tumultuous relationship. According to Blanche, the artist first met the writer at the home M. and Mme. Robert de Bonnières, but Jane Roberts notes that this event occurred more probably at a dinner at the grand residence on the Boulevard Haussmann of the Princesse Ouroussoff, who was an occasional patient at Blanche’s father’s psychiatric clinic. Blanche decribed the first portrait he did of his new friend (the present work) in 1891, in his book, Mes Modeles: ‘My model is thin but robust […] sitting on an English wickerwork chair […] the slightly Chinese looking face of a young Evangelist, spotted with a large mole, and slanting eyes of sparkling haematite that fix you with the gaze of a preacher’ (J.-É. Blanche, Mes Modèles, Paris, 1928, p. 188-189).
The present portrait of the young writer was painted when the artist was 30 years old, and the sitter just 21. Blanche’s career was just taking off and he was in enormous demand both in Paris and across the channel in London. Blanche traveled regularly beginning in 1884 and while in London, he shared a flat with Giovanni Boldini and Paul César Helleu. Blanche would also have met John Singer Sargent in Paris, where his sitters included Jean Cocteau, Edgar Degas, Claude Debussy, Maurice Maeterlinck, Paul Claudel, and Colette as well as Gide. Blanche painted Gide three times during his career: the present portrait; included in a group portrait entitled André Gide et ses amis au Café maure de l’Exposition universelle de 1900 (1901) (fig. 1), and the last time in 1912 (fig. 2). In the last portrait, Blanche painted the writer dressed all in black against a dark background, demonstrating in paint his impression of Gide as ‘the most romantic of all the mysterious writers’ (ibid, p. 206). The artist went on to describe all three of his portraits of Gide, adding, ‘As a young man, clean shaven in a tweed suit, as a Gaul with the droopy mustache of Vercingetorix, or as a traveler in your black velvet hat, your eyes remain the same. I am used to them scrutinizing me in the same way that I never cease to interrogate them’ (ibid, 206).
In the present work, Blanche depicts the future Nobel Laureate in a pose that could be considered quite modern for 1891. Gide is seated in an interior, and the entire composition is rendered in a palette of soft tones; he is dressed in a pale, monochromatic suit and set against a background of soft gold, brown and blue, the only touches of color the soft, pink tones of the hydrangeas at his side. The young man is brought very close to the picture plane, seated cross-legged, one arm folded against his torso, the other supporting his head, his left hand splayed on the side of his face. The placement of the hand to the face draws the viewer’s attention, not to mention that of the artist, to the sensitively rendered visage of the young writer. Gide stares directly at the viewer, the gaze of his deep, dark eyes and slightly open mouth almost engage the viewer in interesting conversation with this thoughtful young man.
The same motifs can be seen in portraiture moving forward into the early years of the 20th century and most notably in the ground-breaking portraiture of Amadeo Modigliani. In Portrait of Leopold Zborowski, (fig. 4) painted in 1916, the artist uses the same pose and the same positioning close to the picture frame. The use of the monochromatic suit and neutral background here also serve to focus the viewer’s attention on the face, and therefore the personality of the sitter.
Throughout their long careers the artist and the writer were often at odds, and Gide never hesitated to mock his friend in writing. But Blanche had a much more forgiving nature and was always more generous and admiring towards his fellow writer. In Mes Modèles, Blanche heaped praise upon Gide as both an artist and humanist, writing, ‘Among all the intelligent men I have known, Gide remains the most astonishing, with Paul Valéry, because they are both able to rise to the highest sphere of speculation but also to take an interest in the most human of values. (Ibid, p. 194).
At the end of his life, Gide clearly felt some remorse towards the way he had treated Blanche, which he expressed in his diary in 1937: It was with some emotion I saw Blanche again. He is sweet enough not to harbor a grudge, considering my nastiness, and was as usual charmingly affable. I reflect sadly, now that our lives are at an end, that I can not return all the affection he constantly gave me, that I have consigned to my diary only the fits of my temper (bad temper) at his existence, which was too complete, too well-to-do, with his excessive ease and disconcern with convenience. But whoever tries to judge him from what I have written would never manage it: I have only described his shadow' (A. Gide, Journal, 1889-1939, Gallimard, 1951, p. 1274).
We are grateful to Jane Roberts for authenticating this painting and for her assistance with the catalogue note. The work will be included in her forthcoming Jacques-Émile Blanche catalogue raisonné, currently under preparation, as no. 1219.