Armand Guillaumin was born in Paris but grew up near Moulins, 250 kilometers to the south, returning to the capital to start work in 1857 at the age of sixteen. He soon developed an interest in art and began to study drawing at the municipal art school. He excelled and in 1863 started attending the Académie Suisse, a studio where he could draw from the model mornings and evenings. There he met two figures who would play key roles in his development as an artist: Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro. Cézanne, two years older, would remain a close friend and painting companion for twenty years; Pissarro, eleven years his senior, acted as a mentor and teacher. In time, Pissarro would introduce the two younger men to Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Alfred Sisley. The nucleus of the Impressionist group was forming.
Among the earliest surviving works by Guillaumin are some executed between 1865 and 1868 of the quays along the Seine in and near Paris, a subject he would return to repeatedly over the next twenty-five years. Though he painted many still lifes and figures, Guillaumin was principally a landscapist. He had a particular interest in depicting the working river: the boats and the labourers who ferried goods to and from the docks. This was likely because he was a worker himself. By the time of the Franco-Prussian War and the bloody Paris Commune of 1871, Guillaumin’s political convictions had been formed, and like Pissarro, he was a committed republican and a socialist. As a result, he had limited interest in depicting the leisure activities of the bourgeoisie, favorite subjects of Monet and Renoir. Rather, his principal interest in the 1870s and early 1880s lay in scenes of industry and labour; in the little free time he had, he’d make his way to draw and paint in the city and in the outskirts of Paris to places like Bercy, Charenton, and Ivry. Here the landscape was dotted with barges and factories. One of his best-known paintings shows the river and factory smokestacks at Ivry bathed in an eerie orange glow, a work that astonishes for its daring use of bright colours and sharp contrasts to create an near-apocalyptical scene.
Indeed, Guillaumin became known for is frequent use of bold colours as well as his assured brushstroke. He applied his colours in rapid, decisive marks with little regard to fine detail, the result being that his canvases were considered crude, more akin to sketches than finished works, by the conservative art critics of the day. Like the other Impressionists, his paintings from the 1870s reveal attempts to depict the transient effects of light and atmospheric conditions on objects, in the sky, and on water. However, he never allowed light to dissolve form; he considered modeling an important element of composition, but he didn’t use line to demarcate objects. He drew using the brushstroke and there is an underlying structure to be found in his paintings. In both his palette and his turbulent brushstroke, Guillaumin carved out a unique position among his peers and in many respects was far ahead of them in the boldness of execution.
By the mid-1870s, after a decade of study and collaboration, Armand Guillaumin had emerged a fine painter with a varied repertoire. As scenes of the working river never sold well, he submitted few of them for exhibition. Fortunately, he was perfectly capable of producing serene tableaus of great beauty, such as this mid-seventies landscape:
Among the distinguished artists of the Impressionist group, Guillaumin was often overlooked; nevertheless, there are numerous examples of praise for his work, written by some of the most important critics of the day. His paintings in the 1877 Impressionist exhibition were reviewed favourably by Georges Riviere: “some landscapes full of good qualities”; by Joris-Karl Huysmans in 1881, when he called Guillaumin “a colourist, and what is more, a fierce one” and in 1882, when he wrote of the emergence of “impressions of lively settings [that] began to appear” from “the stormy colours of his paintings.” But it was 1886 that saw the most insightful critique, when a young critic, Félix Fénéon, wrote a lengthy piece in which he extolled Guillaumin’s strengths in drawing and colouration. He called him a “furious colourist” and a “beautiful painter of landscapes gorged with sap and panting”, astute observations of the tumult and power in Guillaumin’s latest canvases.
Near the end of his life, two volumes looking back on his career were published and both offered glowing reappraisals of his work. In 1924, critic and collector Edouard des Courières opined: “The generous workmanship, the powerful harmonies, the firm design of Guillaumin are of a great painter. His works can withstand all comparisons.” And in 1926, the writer Georges Lecomte wrote: “By the concern for the truth, by the frankness, the subtlety and the vibration of the colour, by the research on light, the novelty of the harmonies and the lively boldness of the drawing, the work of Guillaumin is similar to that of his glorious emulators. But, in the vigor as well as the delicacy, it remains very personal.”
Oil paint was not the only medium Guillaumin employed with proficiency; along with Edgar Degas, he was a master in the use of pastel. While his landscape paintings were always done en plein air, they were usually preceded by a drawing and one or more pastel sketches, many of which became finished works of art. He also frequently did portraits in pastel that were highly-regarded. This pastel on paper features his and Pissarro’s friend, Dr. Martinez.
Guillaumin was continually involved in an exchange of ideas with his companions. From Pissarro, he developed the habit of working rapidly, always before the motif, to capture the first impression of a scene. Cézanne impressed upon his friend the importance of mass and structure; along with Pissarro, Guillaumin, in turn, encouraged Cézanne to lighten his palette, which had been extremely dark. To what extent did Guillaumin and Cézanne influence each other? In 1873, Guillaumin was without doubt responsible for getting Cézanne to try pastel. Throughout the 1870s, the two painted together frequently; their choice of destination and selection of motif must have been mutually agreed upon. While painting side by side, they surely commented on each other’s work and provided encouragement. Cézanne even made a copy of a Guillaumin landscape, seen below. See the Colleagues page for more on their camaraderie.
Without doubt, Guillaumin was seen as a valued collaborator and an equal by his closest compatriots. He was the one among them who could most seamlessly integrate the fleeting effects of light with solidly-constructed forms to produce a unified composition. A tenet of modernism in the 1870s and 80s was the depiction of contemporary life, which included fashion and leisure activities, but also meant trains, iron bridges, and industry. Guillaumin was the sole member of the group with a sustained interest in depicting labour. The painting below features a decidedly industrial subject of dredgers, sand pits, labourers and work horses set amidst a stunning blue and pink sky and sparkling waters. What might have been a drab industrial subject becomes a scene of considerable beauty in the artist’s hands.
Guillaumin’s interest in this sort of gritty subject matter stems in part from his poverty and his own employment as a digger of ditches and remover of night soil (human excrement) from sewage pits. He was the only member of the Impressionist group with a need to maintain full-time employment; however, by working three nights a week, he was free to devote his days to art and this he did with untiring dedication.
After 1882, Guillaumin’s aesthetic explorations lead him to seek out fresh subject matter in some of the rural areas near Paris, such as Damiette and Épinay-sur-Orge, now painted with a greater emphasis on colour and form than before.
The move to a more vigourous expression of colour is also evident in the still life below, where the flowers undulate on the picture plane and even the background appears to be alive. Guillaumin had made the great leap beyond impressionism and was well on his way to establishing a reputation as a remarkable painter of gorgeous, expressive tableaus.
With the splintering of the Impressionist group in the mid 1880s, Guillaumin saw less of his longtime colleagues but found himself at the centre of new currents in art, where he influenced and was influenced by young painters who were pushing further beyond the boundaries of impressionism. He maintained a decade-long friendship with Paul Gauguin. He mentored Paul Signac, and befriended Georges Seurat and Odilon Redon at the Indépendants, a breakaway artists’ association. Between 1884 and 1890, his studio on the Quai d’Anjou was a meeting place for many of the most innovative painters in Paris, among whom Vincent van Gogh was perhaps the most devoted.
In 1892, when he retired with a pension and a recent, large lottery win, he could begin to devote all of his energies to art. His colours grew even bolder and less faithful to nature. He was a Fauve a decade before Fauvism. His favorite painting places were now La Creuse, 400 km southwest of Paris (see painting below), and Agay on the Mediterranean coast, not far from Cannes.
From these locations came paintings of striking form and daring colour. Guillaumin was to establish a regular routine of painting in these and other locations-the Atlantic coast and in Brittany-for the next thirty years before laying down his brushes for good in 1923, four years before his death.
Armand Guillaumin’s career was a long and ultimately successful one. From humble beginnings and through decades of hardship, he persevered, never wavering from the pursuit of his vision of an art based on idiosyncratic observations of the world around him. He made few concessions to picture dealers or the public. He could have taken the easier route of society portraiture, or the churning out of pretty scenes of bourgeois leisure. Instead, for twenty years, he stuck for the most part with the quays, the barges, and the workers. He then turned to depictions of the rough, untamed terrain of La Creuse and the French coastlines. He once said that he painted because it was his greatest satisfaction. His legacy is the body of work that bears his signature: art that not only satisfies but astonishes those fortunate enough to encounter it.
Please see the Colleagues page for much more about the great artists with whom Armand Guillaumin is most closely associated.