The Musèe des Beaux-Arts Nancy is an art gallery of serenity and charm, situated amid the 18th century classical magnificence of the Place Stanislas. The gallery features a number of paintings by Émile Friant, an artist who was born in 1863 in the nearby north-eastern Commune of Dieuze. Never heard of Friant? That’s understandable today, but during his own lifetime Friant’s career as an artist was crowned with public acclaim, culminating in the award of the Legion of Honour when he was just 25 years old.
By the time of his death in 1932, Friant’s artistic star had dimmed and he became a somewhat forgotten man – a relic of the once-fashionable style of Naturalism, which typically portrayed in a realistic mode the lives of ordinary French people at work and at leisure. Although artistic taste and fashion moved on, the enduring qualities of Friant’s artistic talent have retained their ability to move and involve us today. That is, if only we can pause to really look and contemplate, which the tranquil atmosphere of the gallery in Nancy enables us to do.
La Petite Barque
A painting of Friant’s that richly rewards such contemplation is La Petite Barque (or The Little Boat) from 1895. True to his individual Naturalistic style, the focal point of the painting – the two figures seated in the boat – are near-photographic in their clarity, indicating their central importance to the composition. The further we move outwards in all directions from the two figures, the softer the focus becomes – for instance, the top of the hoisted mainsail becomes quite fuzzy as our eyes travel upwards.
In terms of colour, the sails – presumably made of flax canvas – are just off-white, but it’s the dazzling white outfits of the figures, who we might take to be sweethearts, that really enliven the whole scene. We might speculate that the sweethearts are sitting before a blank canvas upon which they can create and illustrate their future lives together – in their own ‘little boat’ – beginning from a position of tranquil optimism.
As part of his Naturalist outlook in painting, Friant spoke of his desire to capture quietly expressed but profoundly felt emotions. That aspiration finds its artistic expression in La Petite Barque, where Friant presents us with a momentary mood of complete serenity. Yet we can see that the boat is not becalmed: there is a perceptible wake in the water behind the tiller and the sails are taut in a light breeze. That is to say, life is not static, it moves with nature, but we can exercise a degree of influence over our direction. While their boat gently progresses – literally towards the water outside of the picture frame – the sweethearts might be sharing a few soft words and we can see from their postures that they are utterly relaxed in each other’s intimate company. Incidentally, in this instance and unusually for the era, it’s the female who has her guiding hand on the tiller.
The art of togetherness
In the Russian language, there is a small but evocative word pronounced as ‘mir.’ It can be taken to concurrently mean ‘peace’, ‘village’ (or ‘community’) and ‘world.’ Through many generations in the past, the multiple meanings of ‘mir’ provided ordinary, provincial Russian people with a sense of well-being and shared experiences in their small worlds. In La Petite Barque we are, of course, in France rather than Russia. Yet there appears to be a pronounced feeling of the multi-layered ‘mir’ in this painting, projecting as it does the loving peacefulness of two people who inhabit a small world of their own, sailing together into a future they will create with and for each other.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts is located at 3 Place Stanislas, Nancy, Grand Est. Being somewhat removed from the conventional tourist trails in France, Nancy offers a less hectic French experience. ‘Crowds’ at the Musée des Beaux-Arts tend to number in the dozens rather than the thousands, giving you the time, space and the opportunity to contemplate some highly accomplished works of art.
By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…