Émile Friant, “L’Intérieur d’Atelier (The Studio Interior)”, 1879-1880, Oil on Apricot Panel, 46 x 38 cm, Private Collection
Born in Dieuze, a small city near Nancy in April of 1863, Émile Friant was a French artist who created works in oil and charcoal. Equally influenced by the culture and trends of Paris and Nancy, he rose to prominence with his version of Naturalism, an art form which appealed to the public both in France and abroad. Later after his exposure to the richness, beauty and architecture of the Orient, Friant’s naturalist style evolved into a latent Symbolism.
Born into a modest family, his father a locksmith and mother a dressmaker, Émile Friant began work as a dressmaker at the age of fourteen. One of his mother’s wealthy clients, Madame Parisot, who had born no children with her husband, took an early interest in the young Friant. With the defeat of the Second French Empire in 1870 as a result of the Franco-Prussian War, the now-widowed Madame Parisot fled in 1871 with Émile Friant to the city of Nancy which was still part of France; his biological family followed soon after. This became an important move for Friant as the city of Nancy and its art institute, École des Beaux-Arts, would become a prominent artistic center of production during the Art Nouveau period.
After drawing classes at the École de l’Est. Friant enrolled at Nancy’s Institute of Design and Painting and became a favorite student of the director Louis-Théodore Devilly who had studied under Eugene Delacroix. Under Devilly’s tutorage, Friant focused purely on painting and produced studies of landscapes, still lifes, and later portraits which he sold a thirty francs apiece. Due to his talent, he was allowed at the age of fifteen to enter his work in exhibitions at Nancy’s Salon des Amis des Arts. After a year, the city of Nancy granted Friant a scholarship which enabled him to relocate alone to Paris. There he settled in an apartment on the Notre Dame des Champs in the autumn of 1879 and entered the atelier of the established academic painter Alexandre Cabanel.
During his first year in Paris, Émile Friant formed a strong friendship with three other artists from the Lorraine region: Victor Prouvé, Jules Bastien-Lapage, and Aimé Morot who encouraged Friant to end his academic training and complete his first two paintings. These works were “Intérieur d’Atelier (Interior of the Studio)” and “L’Enfant Prodique (The Prodigal Son)” which would be exhibited at the 1882 Paris Salon. In 1883 Friant entered the Prix de Rome with his “Œdipe Maudissant son Fils Polynice (Oedipus Cursing His Son Polynice)” but won only second place. Already successfully established with commissions for portraits, he entered the 1885 Prix de Rome with his second “Intérieur d’Atelier” which won him a second medal and exempted his work from approval by the submitting jury, an accomplished feat for an artist at the age of twenty-two.
At the Paris Salon of 1886, Friant entered portraiture with his other entries and won a scholarship from the French government which enabled him to travel. His first journey was to Holland where he studied portrait miniatures; his second and more important trip was to Tunisia where Friant became fascinated by the entire new world surrounding him: the brilliant natural light, the costumes of the inhabitants, and the architecture. Among the paintings he produced after the voyage were “Souk des Tailleurs (Souk of the Tailors)”, and “Port d’Alger (Port of Algiers)”.
After his return to Paris, Émile Friant exhibited his 1887 “Réunion des Canotiers de la Meurthe (Reunion of the Meurthe Boating Party)”at the 1888 Paris Salon. This large work, 116 x 170 cm, did not win any awards but was very popular, which encouraged Friant to paint another large work. His “La Toussaint (All Saints’ Day)” won the grand prize at the 1889 Paris Salon. In the same year, Friant was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor and won a gold medal and another traveling scholarship at the Universal Exposition in Paris. He also became part of the Société Nationale de Beaux-Arts which organized their own annual Salons on the Champ de Mars, thus aligning him with other more progressive artists of the period.
By the mid 1890s, Friant began introducing symbolic references into his work which had been a naturalistic and almost photographic representation of daily bourgeois life. He did however cater to the wishes of his affluent clientele; many of his later entries at the Salon were portraits commissioned by wealthy patrons. Friant also began to deal in the 1890s with American patrons who wanted to exhibit or commission a work. His “Les Fiançailles (The Engagements)” was chosen for the first Carnegie Annual Exhibition held in 1896 in Pittsburgh. Friant began working steadily with art dealer Roland Knoedler and art collector Henry Clay Frick, who would include Friant’s work in his newly established Frick Museum in New York City.
Émile Friant maintained a dedicated academic manner of creativity in his portraits even when this type of painting was attacked by the abstract modernists. He continued to exhibit through the years at the Salons in Paris and Nancy. In 1906, Friant was named professor of drawing at the École Nationale des Beaux Arts where he continued to teach the importance of the academic drawing method. He was appointed a professor of painting at the École des Beaux Arts in 1923 and was made a member of the Institut de France. A comprehensive retrospective of his work was published in 1930 by art critic Arséne Alexandre. At the age of sixty-nine, Émile Friant fell to his death in Paris on the 9th of June in 1932.
Top Insert Image: Émile Friant, “”Autoportrait, dit un Étudiant”, 1885, Oil on Panel, Museum of Fine Arts at Nancy, France
Second Insert Image: Émile Friant, “Portrait of William Rothenstein”, 1891, Pastel on Paper, 51 x 32.5 cm, Private Collection
Third Insert Image: Émile Friant, “Study for La Douleur”, 1899, Charcoal on Wove Paper, 47 x 40.6 cm, Dahesh Museum of Art, New York City
bottom Insert Image: Émile Friant, “The Meurthe Boating Party”, 1887, Oil on Canvas, 116 x 170 cm, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy