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French artist Émile Friant

Émile Friant is a French artist whose name is little known today. Yet he was a painter of immense and widely acclaimed talent in his own era, being awarded the highly prestigious Legion of Honour when he was just 25 years old in 1888. Friant’s painting from that year, Les Amoureux (or The Lovers), is a characteristic expression of his immense talent.

The art of being unconvinced

A notable aspect of Friant’s art was his ability to use painterly techniques in subtle or almost hidden ways to create scenes of seemingly ‘effortless’ harmony – as if a scene had been captured completely naturally, without recourse to any obvious technical effects. We can still enjoy this painting, while also considering how Friant deliberately went about creating the effects that make the picture so engaging.

It’s characteristic of Friant’s technique to bring his subject into sharp focus, while softening the less important aspects. We can see that the heads and hands of the lovers in the foreground are crisp and vivid. As the lovers stand upon an iron bridge over the Meurthe River in the countryside around the French city of Nancy, we can see that the trees, water and structures in the background fade gently into the distance. It’s tempting to think that this technique is reminiscent of modern long lens photography: sharp subjects in the foreground and very fuzzy backgrounds.

But then take a look at the bridge upon which the lovers are leaning. Although the bridge is virtually the same distance from us as are the lovers’ faces, the focus on the bridge is very much softer. By using selective focus as a painterly technique, the artist is gently establishing a hierarchy of importance, drawing the attention of the viewer to the sharpness of the key subject: the relationship between the lovers. The bridge, while very near to the viewer, is deliberately softened by Friant’s brushwork, because the bridge is much less important than the lovers who stand upon it.

As an artist, Friant was famous for his subtlety in depicting quietly expressed but deeply held emotions. The eye contact between the lovers is a key aspect of this painting. But look again: their eyes do not actually meet. What we are seeing in this painting is really the avoidance of eye contact. This makes the painting so much more intriguing than had their loving gazes simply met in a romantic scene. Friant is far too good an artist to depict a merely one-dimensional sentimental scene.

With this in mind, we might speculate that someone has some explaining do or some unwelcome news to deliver: the someone being the male figure. Despite what he might need to say being difficult, he is nevertheless leaning very much in towards the female figure, apparently hopeful of maintaining a loving relationship. It is the female figure who we might speculate looks unconvinced, gazing off into the distance, beyond the attempted eye contact of the male. Note also that the female’s ear is painted with superb clarity: the young woman will listen closely, but she will not allow herself to be swayed by making contact with the young man’s eyes.

It seems that Friant may well have captured the lovers at a difficult moment – perhaps it’s a passing moment, but perhaps it’s a turning point with a more profound meaning for their relationship. Friant’s gift to us is that ambiguity of meaning, inviting and enabling us to wonder about the meaning of it all, well beyond a century later.

Friant’s painting Les Amoureux can be viewed in peace and quiet at the Musée des Beaux-Arts at 3 Place Stanislas, Nancy, in the ‘far off’ Grand Est region of France. While the museum in Nancy is host to many highly accomplished works of art, the painfully massive crowds that throng the main art galleries of Paris are utterly absent.

By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…

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