The Passion of Jesus Christ video
Watch this video to learn the story of this masterpiece.
Influences on this great artist
Museums and galleries all over the word display the work of French Symbolist / Post-Impressionist painter Émile Bernard.
Bernard's Artistic Beginnings
The Pont-Aven School
His body of artwork reflects diverse and influential expressions of style and subject matter. In his early years, he embraced Cloisonnism, painting with bold colors and flat forms separated by dark contours, which contrasted the non-delimitation of the Impressionists.
He developed relationships with other master painters, including Vincent van Gogh, Eugéne Boch, and Paul Gauguin, who were all fellow practitioners of Cloisonnism. Bernard, Gauguin, and other notable artists gathered in Brittany at a place called Pont-Aven in the summer of 1888.
These artists collectively became known as the Pont-Aven School. They exchanged ideas and spent many hours drawing and painting the beautiful countryside with its natural colors and images.
In 1893 Bernard published the now-famous letters between himself and van Gogh (held at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York) that illuminate how both were highly influenced by the Bible's teachings. [notation 2]
Toward Religious Symbolism
"Christian Essence and Divine Language"
These letters also describe Bernard's summer of 1889, a time of great religious discovery for him while he worked alone in Le Pouldu, France. During this time Bernard began to paint many canvasses with Christian symbolism. Several are on display at St. Joseph's parish church in Pont-Aven, adjacent to rue Emile Bernard.
Bernard frequently wrote about his bond with this style of religious symbolism. He often referenced that his work was of a "Christian essence and divine language." [notation 3]
After the death of their mutual friend van Gogh in 1890, Bernard's friendship with Gauguin began to falter. Feeling alienated, Bernard left the European art scene and moved to Egypt in 1893, living there for the next 8 years.
While abroad he shifted his creative energies toward the techniques of the Old Masters of the Renaissance. Bernard was drawn to the old Venetian style, which led him to progressively realistic representations of images.
The Artist's Masterwork
The Return Home
After teaching and traveling in Egypt and the Near East, he returned to Paris in 1901. Three years later Bernard settled in Tonnerre, where his granddaughter still lives. Around this time he likely began developing the ideas for his masterpiece, "The Passion of Jesus Christ."
Émile Bernard's background in history, religion, philosophy and literature, combined with his great technical skill, make his paintings powerful. He died 16 April 1941 in his Paris studio at the age of 72.
Discovering a Masterpiece
This compelling masterpiece, "The Passion of Jesus Christ," reportedly was obtained by an art dealer in Paris after the death of Bernard. It may have been removed from the painter's studio apartment upon settlement of his estate. No records have yet been found.
A purchase by an artist
The first known owner, Uno Vallman (1913 - 2004), an acclaimed Swedish painter, purchased the work from Morgan Katzorek at the Morgan Gallery in Stockholm around 1953. Katzorek, who died in 2014, and his wife Ulla, bought many paintings during monthly trips to Paris in the 1950s.
Restoring a damaged legacy
Vallman received the painting in damaged condition. By the time it came into his possession, the painting had been folded in two areas. And the current owner of the painting, Uno's nephew Leif Wallman, received the painting in a rolled condition.
Uno reported that the original damage was done in order to transport and conceal it from Nazi pillaging during their World War II occupation of Paris.[notation 7]
Uno Vallman kept the work until 1970 when he took it to the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm for re-lining and restoration. Due to the extent of the damage, however, the restoration was left incomplete.
Proving the Artist was Émile Bernard
The Evolution of a Masterpiece
"The Passion of Jesus Christ" is not signed nor was it described in print during Bernard's life. But compelling evidence exists to prove the artist is Bernard. And perhaps the faithful Bernard was following the medieval tradition of not signing religious artwork to keep the focus on the glory of God.
In 1953, the respected artist and owner of the painting, Uno Vallman, along with his dealer examined the piece and verified its origin as an Émile Bernard work. They determined that it was started in the late 1920s and likely took many years to develop and complete. [notation 7]
A restoration curator, France Bonnimond-Dumont, at the Louvre in Paris reviewed and analyzed the painting and confirmed [notation 4], in collaboration with Bernard's granddaughter, Dr. Lorédana Harscoet-Marie, that the work was indeed painted by Bernard. [notation 3]
The painting was taken to the Swedish Government Forensics Laboratory in 2001, which reviewed it by ultraviolet light for origination. Results indicated that no painting existed below this one and that it was created in the first half of the 20th century.
In 2014, Dr. Jean-Jacques Luthi (De l'Académie des Sciences d'Outre-Mer) added the painting to his official catalogue of Bernard's work as item #1690, "La Passion de Jésus-Christ–1935." [notation 5]
But even more compelling proof exists in the form of a Maquette.
Smaller Version of the Painting
The maquette, a composite "sketch"
In 1926 Émile Bernard painted a similar, but smaller work called "La Vierge au Pied de la Croix," an authenticated painting on lined canvas on plywood (47cm x 64cm). It is item #1187 in Luthi's catalog. This smaller "sketch" has been on display at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Brest in France since 1991. It bears Bernard's signature in the lower left portion of the painting.
Experts have thought all along that this compelling motif, "La Vierge au Pied de la Croix," was one of a kind. Now, we believe this smaller version is Bernard's composition sketch (a maquette) for the more expansive depiction, "The Passion of Jesus Christ."
"The fact that the same technique was used in the painting from the Musée des Beaux-Arts, with his signature, underscores the strong evidence that this [larger] painting was created by Bernard," writes restoration expert Aiqin Zhou. [notation 1]
Granddaughter Confirms Authenticity
She immediately recognizes her grandfather's work
When Bernard's granddaughter, Lorédana Harscoët-Marie, saw the painting for the first time, she immediately recognized it as her grandfather's work. [notation 3] Not only did the work show the rose-colored primer that Bernard traditionally used (unlike most painters who used white or gray), but the color palette matched other painting he produced in the 1920s and 1930s.
After she saw the photos of the smaller maquette that bears his signature, she upheld that it was his sketch for the larger work. He "always make a sketch or smaller versions before he did a final painting," said Lorédana. [notation 3]