Considered a “new genius” by Vincent Van Gogh and many of his contemporaries, Léon Lhermitte showed artistic talent at a young age. He was born in 1844 in the rural Aisne region in Northern France. In 1863, he settled in Paris to attend the prestigious École imperiale de dessin on a scholarship. Under the aegis of Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, Lhermitte learned to draw from memory using the method called the “picturesque memory”, which encouraged artists to develop the same acute eye for detail as a photographer.
In a naturalist way, Lhermitte used his training to capture the rural life from his childhood, where romanticized peasants worked in harmony with a bountiful natural environment. In fact, despite his numerous travels within France and abroad, never would his deep attachment to his rustic roots disappear from his life and prolific œuvre.
Charcoal drawing was a fundamental part of his work for the first twenty-five years of his career. Less contrived than oils, Lhermitte achieved his most personal expression in this medium. An accomplished young draughtsman, he submitted his first work to the Salon, a charcoal drawing, The Banks of the Marne near Alfort in 1864. Lhermitte considered his monochromatic fusains and charcoal drawings finished works of art in their own right, suitable for public display and exhibition. As a result, Lhermitte was very much modern and admired by Rodin, Vincent van Gogh, who compared him to Rembrandt: He [Lhermitte]’s a master of the figure. He’s able to do what he likes with it — conceiving the whole neither from the colour nor from the local tone, but rather proceeding from the light — as Rembrandt did — there’s something astonishingly masterly in everything he does — in modelling, above all things, he utterly satisfies the demands of honest”. (Vincent Van Gogh to Theo, September 2 1885, letter 531).
In 1869, on the eve of the Franco-Prussian war, Lhermitte sailed to London to meet Alphonse Legros, who had established his studio there 6 years earlier. On his second visit in 1871, Legros referred Lhermitte to engrave the book Works of Art in the Collections of England illustratedbyLièvre. Legros also introduced Lhermitte to another French expat, the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who, at the outbreak of the war, had found refuge in the English Capital. While Lhermitte’s charcoals sold well at Durand-Ruel’s on New Bond Street, they achieved critical acclaim when shown in the groundbreaking exhibitions, “Black and Whites” at Dudley Gallery.
Lhermitte was one of the few artists of his generation who excelled in more than one media. The decade beginning in 1880 was Lhermitte’s most successful and creative period as a painter. He exhibited his rural scenes, such as The Plough (Le labourage) at the prestigious Royal Academy in London and Paying the Harvesters (La Paye des moissonneurs), at the Salon in 1882. Paye des moissonneurs was eventually purchased by the French State. Lhermitte’s commercial achievements reached their apex when in 1887, a contract was signed with Boussod, Valadon & co, the successors of Goupil & cie, the most prominent dealers at the time. Through his dealers’ extensive network, Lhermitte gained international fame and success for his paintings.
In 1898, once again at the forefront of new artistic movements, Lhermitte was invited to take part in the pioneer Vienna Secession exhibition alongside Gustav Klimt. He also continued to enjoy official commendation throughout the remainder of his career, receiving the Legion of Honor in 1884, a Grand Prix at the Exposition Universelle in 1889, and was elected to the Institut de France in 1905.