Gaston la Touche
Born at St Cloud, near Paris, on the 29th October 1854, Gaston La Touche showed an early vocation for an artistic career. From the age of about ten years, he spent every available moment of recreation in drawing, and finally managed to obtain permission from his parents to take lessons from a M. 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 Félix 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 Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes (c 1877-79) to discuss art and other topical matters. La Touche also frequented this cafe 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 has already be 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 subjet 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 fetes-champetres, 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, ceramicist and lithographer and was himself much influenced by Japanese art. He and his talented wife Marie (who exhibited twice with the Impressionists) lived not far from the La Touche property and the latter was probably 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 where they engaged in lively discussion, usually dominated by the fiery-tempered Bracquemond. It was he who largely 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 done 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 reality fall into a named category. He attempted his own form of divisionism, but continued to experiment with feathery brush strokes, each of a different shade, which give his pictures an ethereal serenity which seems 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 otherworldly quality is more readily apparent in such works as Le Temple de l’Amour and Soiree d’Ete. La Touche painted many allegorical and some mythological paintings as well as land and waterscapes, and his beloved Versailles of which he once said ‘Je n’ai qu’un seul maitre le parc de Versailles’.
In 1889 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 Légion d’Honneur in 1900, and received an official commission to paint a fete 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 a l’Eau which he had founded in 1906 and of which he was President. A large show at the Galerie Georges Petit was held in 1909 and another at Boussod and Valadon in the Hague, some two months before his sudden death while working on a painting on 12th July, 1913.