Gaston La Touche 1854-1913
Born in St Cloud, near Paris on 29th October 1854, Gaston La Touche showed an early vocation for an artistic career. From the age of ten he spent every available moment of recreation in drawing and managed to obtain permission from his parents to take lessons from a Monsieur Paul, who quickly discovered his natural aptitude and encouraged the young boy to persevere with his studies.
Interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the lessons ceased when the family fled to Normandy. La Touche never received any further formal training, but he came under the influence of two older painters, one of whom in particular was to have a profound and far-reaching effect on the development of European painting. The two were Felix Bracquemond and Edouard Manet. After the Paris Commune and the war, Manet, Degas and a group of painters, critics, poets and authors used to gather regularly at the Cafe de la Nouvelle-Athenes (c.1877-79) to discuss art and other topical matters. La Touche also frequented this café, where those he met included the realist writer Emile Zola; Duranty, a critic, and Theodore Duret, a politician, collector and champion of the Impressionists.
La Touche was not directly influenced by Manet’s style; rather the ideas of the older man spoke to him. Sincerity, candour, integrity and a striving after the truth were the qualities to be sought in both life and art. During this period in his career, La Touche depicted grim scenes from the daily lives of the miners and labourers, whose plight had already been brought to the notice of the general public by the social realism of Zola’s novels, such as L’Assommoir and Germinal.
After 1890, however, there was a radical shift in the subject matter, palette and technique of La Touche’s work. During the six years to 1896, he gradually, yet steadily evolved from realism to the idealism that was to be the hallmark of his oeuvre; the creation of a harmonious luminous and charming world of parks and gardens, nymphs and fountains, fireworks and fêtes-champêtres, in which nature is depicted in terms of colour and light, yet with an element of fantasy which sets his work aside from that of the earlier Impressionist Group.
Without doubt, the single most important influence on La Touche was that of Felix Bracquemond. He was a painter, engraver, ceramist and lithographer and was himself much influenced by Japanese art. He and his talented wife Marie lived not far from the La Touche property and La Touche was a frequent guest at their regular Sunday luncheons, when painters such as Sisley and Fantin-Latour and the critic Gustave Geffroy met at the Villa Brancas, engaging in lively discussion, usually dominated by the fiery tempered Bracquemond. It was he who persuaded La Touche to abandon his sombre palette in favour of the spectrum of colour. He perceived that the underlying influences of La Touche’s art were those of the French eighteenth century: Fragonard and Watteau and encouraged him to pursue the symphonies of colour which typify his work. It is also interesting to note that La Touche destroyed almost all the paintings he had produced during his socio-realist phase; in 1891 he consigned fifteen years work to the flames of a bonfire in a single day.
La Touche’s oeuvre does not fall into a particular category. He attempted his own form of divisionism, but continued to experiment with feathery brushstrokes, each of a different shade, which give his pictures an ethereal serenity, which appear far removed from the everyday world. This ambience carries over even into paintings of more prosaic subject matter, as though the most ordinary event or gesture is somehow transformed under his brush. This other worldly quality is more readily apparent in such works as Le Temple de l’Amour and Soirée d’Eté. La Touche painted many allegorical and some mythological paintings, as well as land and seascapes, and his beloved Versailles, of which he once said “I only have one Master, the Park of Versailles”.
In 1899 he exhibited some of his Versailles views in Paris, followed the same year by an exhibition of watercolours at the Fine Art Society in London and a favourable article in The Studio magazine by Gabriel Mourey. The painter was awarded the Legion d’honneur in 1900 and received an official commission to paint a fête at Versailles for the Elysée Palace in 1906.
La Touche exhibited regularly at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and the Société des Peintres et Sculpteurs as well as at the Société de la Peinture à l’Eau which he had founded in 1906 and of which he was President. A large exhibition at the Galeries Georges Petit was held in 1908 and another at Boussod and Valadon in The Hague, some two months before his sudden death whilst working on a painting on 12th July 1913.