BEAUVAIS, FRANCE — This spring the Musée de l’Oise (MUDO) in Beauvais has helped an artist make his way toward the light, only after eight decades of dark oblivion. Such is the melancholy circumstance of artist Amédée de La Patellière (1890–1932), an unknown inter-war independent painter, who died young at age 42, and who is only now gaining a retrospective. Born into a family of gentry at Nantes, La Patellière had a full, if short, life, first going to law school before moving to Paris. It was there that he first encountered modern art and the work of Pablo Picasso, his strongest influence. But La Patellière is not considered part of any modern movement and that’s why he has been called an independent painter of Jeune Peinture française (literally “Young French Painting”), much like the artists André Dunoyer de Segonzac and Charles Dufresne.
Using simplified modern visual motifs to paint the forest, farms, landscape, cows, and farmers (with some predisposition for allegory), La Patellière’s work usually makes use of a limited and somber palette that looks rather current in its simplicity. Particularly this is so with the late ‘20s, glum interior in “La conversation dans l’atelier” (1927), with its sense of cool detachment and unspoken connections among a group of seated women.
Much like Otto Dix, Fernand Léger, and George Braque, La Patellière belonged to the “lost generation,” as it was dubbed by Gertrude Stein: the generation of those who grew up in the muddy trenches of World War I. But La Patellière is unique in that he spent nearly eight years serving in the French army between 1911 and 1919, from ages 21 to 29. Wounded twice, he was commended twice for acts of bravery and received the Military Cross of honor. He saw fighting and fatality close-up and personal. But he bore witness to this catastrophic war not by depicting the fighting directly, but rather the resulting wounded foliage, for example in his more than capable watercolor “Grand arbre la tête brisée par un obus” (1917). It’s interesting that he never straightforwardly represented his battles, only their grim ruins.
La Patellière sketched these images of disfigured nature while fighting at the front and then finished the work when convalescing from his wounds or on leave of duty. At the Musée de l’Oise, the gallery displaying numerous such watercolors is painted a somehow appropriate baby blue. This collection of visual pain cooling in that azure setting is undeniably poignant and full of spiritual fulfillment.
When he returned to civilian life after the war, he was driven by a fervent yearning to make art, making an estimated 900 paintings from 1921 until his death, by natural causes, in 1932. Much of this work, as influenced by Gustave Courbet, deals with peasant themes. But La Patellière gives them an unusual sweet softness and peculiar peace, even when mixing genres by combining country folk themes with mythological tales.
During this early productive period La Patellière split his time between Paris and Bois-Benoit, where the countryside was a persistent source of inspiration. His first mature paintings on canvas, like “Le Repas des paysans à Vallet” (1923), are obviously influenced by Cubism. Though Picasso’s non-Cubist “Sleeping Peasants” (1919) appears to have offered up thematic material for La Patellière’s “Le repos des paysans” (1925), where there are also traces of the rounded monumental figures of Picasso’s neo-Classical period of the early 1920s, such as Picasso’s breathtaking “Two Women Running on the Beach” (1922). This style of work is generally considered a reaction against the pre-war radicalism of Cubism, and seen as a popular desire in art for order. But I found that one of the very best paintings in the show from that time was an attractive, small, expressionist-tinged canvas of a brown female nude called “Nu brun” (1925) that owes nothing to Picasso.
Yet La Patellière soon moved towards a less modern but moodier, dim chiaroscuro style evidenced in “Le Repos des Moissonneurs” (1926) and “Le Philosophe à la bouteille” (1926), where the wine cellar perched owl, a symbol of death and philosophy, explains the title of the work. An even darker, otherworldly, blocky style gives La Patellière’s “L’Enlèvement d’Europe au coquillage” (1927) a fresh twist to folk art as he plays on the power of volume within multiple variations of chiaroscuro.
From 1928 on, La Patellière put aside the black, such as in the unexpected, monumental “Baigneuses à Bandol” (1928), a genuinely pleasurable work of robust figures frolicking in the waves as a storm gathers in the distance. The artist here takes on the theme of Mediterranean bathers, so dear to Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso, with a much more vivid color palette than usual. Yet by painting the sky as obscured by shades of black, he retained an ominous touch that in retrospect can be seen as a prevision of the next war to come. The successive waves seem heavy and frozen, trapping the chunky bathers between them. Only a tiny radius of sun seems to clear a free path on the left, but time has stopped in this scene. The fun is almost over.
Finally a colorful lyricism blossoms in his late decorative paintings. In December 1928, Paul Baudouin, La Patellière’s friend and patron, commissioned him to do a large, pleasing-to-the-eye composition for his dining room that became known as “Le Concert Champêtre” (1929). The central playful motif is of a woman with a violin, bordered by a bevy of additional women and serene animals that lounge about. La Patellière devoted a good part of 1929 to it, but the bombastic work is something of an overreach that does nothing to enhance his reputation.
In 1930, architect Auguste Perret commissioned a ceiling project from La Patellière representing the signs of the zodiac. That work was never completed. The grander theme and scheme of La Patellière’s existence, his extended fight in the war and his following artistic flourish, were played out. Those twelve signs, so associated with horoscopic astrology used to analyze birth charts, had nothing left to tell him. He had passed away.
Amédée de La Patellière: Les Éclats de l’Ombre continues at the Musée de l’Oise (1 Rue du Musée, 60006 Beauvais, France) through June 15.