Description & Technical information

Drawn in November 1886, this is one of a series of 128 charcoal drawings commissioned from Lhermitte to serve as illustrations for the French poet and novelist André Theuriet’s book La Vie rustique, published in 1888, and in an English translation in America in 1896. Theuriet had originally conceived the book as a collaboration with the painter Jules Bastien-Lepage, and on the latter’s death in 1884, he turned to Lhermitte. La Vie rustique was a detailed description of peasant life, and also served as a sort of elegy for the daily rituals of rustic life, which the author feared would be lost with the advent of industrialisation and modernity. As Theuriet noted in the introduction to the book, ‘We have tried religiously to collect the relics of the customs, the faces, and landscapes which are likely to disappear, and we shall be abundantly rewarded for our efforts if we have thus been able to preserve to posterity the picture of a world and a nature which they may never know.’

The scholar John House adds that, ‘André Theuriet’s La vie rustique, published in 1888, was a lavish presentation of a way of life that he saw as disappearing. After a brief invocation of the harshness of peasant labour, Theuriet turned to a paean to the ‘charm’ and ‘picturesque qualities’ that artists and poets found in the countryside. His book was a monument to what he saw as the imminent loss of this lifestyle, already foreshadowed by the invasion of industry into the environs of Paris, ‘diminished, vulgarised, polluted by the factories’. As he presents it, though, Theuriet seems to be mourning the loss of a mythic image rather than of any social reality.’

This study for Ploughing (Le Labourage) from La Vie rustique is a superb example of Lhermitte’s charcoal drawings from the height of his career. The composition is derived from that of another, slightly larger fusain, horizontal in orientation, that the artist had produced a year earlier to illustrate the month of March; part of a series of twelve drawings representing the months of the year that were published in Le Monde illustré in 1885. Both the present sheet and the horizontal composition of the previous year were drawn at the farm of Ru Chailly in the village of Fossoy, near his native Mont-Saint-Père in Picardy, where Lhermitte often worked.

The artist later returned to this composition, albeit in a horizontal format, some twenty-five years later, in a large painting of 1911 that was exhibited at the Salon des Beaux-Arts of that year. A pastel study of two plough horses, formerly in a private collection and sold at auction in 2002, may be related to the 1911 painting.

All 128 of Lhermitte’s drawings for La Vie rustique, including the present sheet, were exhibited in November 1887 at the Parisian offices of the publishers H. Launette et Cie., who retained ownership of the drawings. Only a handful of the fusains by Lhermitte for La Vie rustique have appeared on the art market in recent years, including Haymaking (Fenaison), which was sold at auction in 1992, Picking Lily of the Valley (Cueillette du muguet), which appeared at auction in 1996, and At the Well (À la fontaine), sold at auction in 2005. Perhaps the closest in style and composition to the present sheet, however, is the charcoal drawing for The Sower (Le semeur), which was sold at auction in New York in 2000 and again in 2008.

The present sheet may be regarded as one of the finest of Lhermitte’s series of illustrations for La Vie rustique, and serves to underline Richard Thomson’s apposite comments on the artist: ‘His draughtsmanship has a sureness, a probity even, which gives his compositions a resolute authority...his pastels and justly celebrated fusains are handled with an impressive sensitivity to light and atmosphere.’

Date:  November 1886
Period:  1850-1900, 19th century
Origin:  France
Medium: Charcoal, Pencil
Signature: Signed L. Lhermitte at the lower left. 

Dimensions: 39.3 x 29.5 cm (15¹/₂ x 11⁵/₈ inches)
Provenance: With Librarie Artistique H. Launette et Cie., Paris, in 1887
James Francis Trezza, New York, in 2001
Private collection, New York.

Literature: André Theuriet, La Vie rustique, Paris, 1888 [1899 ed.], illustrated p.65; ‘Un Domino’, Le Gaulois, 7 September 1887; L’Avenir Nationale, 9 September 1887; Le Progrès de l’Aisne, 9 September 1887; La Republique francaise, 9 September 1887; M. O., Le Monde illustré, 12 September 1887; Arthur Pougin, ‘L’exposition de dessins de Léon Lhermitte’, L’Estafette, 22 September 1887; Marcel Charlot, Paysages et paysans, Paris, 1898, illustrated p.8; René Bazin, ‘Le paysan de France’, Les Annales, no.1600, p.178; Christopher Lloyd, Camille Pissarro, London, 1981, illustrated p.136; Monique Le Pelley Fonteny, Leon Augustin Lhermitte (1844-1925): Catalogue raisonné, Paris, 1991, pp.458-459, no.770 (as location unknown).

Exhibitions: Paris, Librarie Artistique H. Launette et Cie., Fusains de Léon Lhermitte, November 1887.

Categories: Paintings, Drawings & Prints