Paul Valéry et les Peintres

A Poet Rediscovered Through His Taste in Art

October 7, 2020By Heidi EllisonExhibitions
"La Fileuse Endormie" (1853), by Gustave Courbet. Musée Fabre, Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole © Frédéric Jaulmes
“La Fileuse Endormie” (1853), by Gustave Courbet. Musée Fabre, Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole © Frédéric Jaulmes

During his lifetime, Paul Valéry (1871-1945) was a revered poet and thinker in France, so much so that in 1925 he was elected to the Académie Française, an honor reserved for the immortal few (its 40 members are referred to as les immortels). Today, however, he is rather neglected outside the academic world, even in France, except in his birthplace, Sète, on the Mediterranean coast, where he is buried in the cemetery that is the subject of his famed poem Le Cimetière Marin. Just above the cemetery is the Musée Paul Valéry. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the municipal museum’s move to its purpose-built building on Mont Saint-Clair and the name change honoring the poet/philosopher, the museum is holding an exhibition called “Paul Valéry et les Peintres.”

Although Valéry wrote on many subjects, including (occasionally) art, he never attempted art criticism or presumed to be an expert on the subject. He did, however, know and associate with many artists through his family (his wife, Jeannine Gobillard, was the niece of painter Berthe Morisot, who was married to Eugène Manet, the brother of painter Édouard Manet) and his friends and colleagues in Paris, where he lived for most of his life in a painting-filled house built by Morisot. The first part of the exhibition includes works by artists who were part of this family circle: Morisot, Manet (notably the handsome still life “Eel and Mullet”), Henri Rouart, and a few others.

"The Piano Lesson" (1923), by Henri Matisse. © Rodolphe-Haller Genève © Succession H. Matisse
“The Piano Lesson” (1923), by Henri Matisse. © Rodolphe-Haller Genève © Succession H. Matisse

The next two sections feature works by artists who were close friends or acquaintances, among them Jacques-Émile Blanche, Edgar Degas, Maurice Denis, Monet, Renoir and Matisse. Some of the works here are of uneven quality, but there are numerous delights, especially the many portraits of Valéry by famous artists. There are three by Blanche, of whom Valéry wrote, “I have always had nothing but praise for him; the only things I can reproach him for are my portraits.”

"Portrait of Paul Valéry" (1923), by Jacques-Émile Blanche. © Agence Albatros/Réunion des Musées Métropolitains Rouen Normandie
“Portrait of Paul Valéry” (1923), by Jacques-Émile Blanche. © Agence Albatros/Réunion des Musées Métropolitains Rouen Normandie

The only portrait of himself Valéry really appreciated was a lifelike drawing by Rudolf Kundera, on show in the exhibition. “I am happy to remain here a captive of the art of Monsieur Rudolf Kundera,” he wrote of it. I particularly liked a soulful drawing by Lou Albert-Lasard and a full-length portrait of Valéry dressed for the outdoors in overcoat and hat by Georges d’Espagnat. A portrait of Valéry by Picasso, made for the frontispiece of Valéry’s book La Jeune Parque, is not included in the show.

For another section of the exhibition, the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, where Valéry grew up, has lent some of the masterpieces that impressed the writer during his childhood visits to the museum. The standout here is Franciso de Zurbarán’s “Saint Agatha” (c. 1630-33), in which the beautiful martyred saint is seen full-length with a sweet, tranquil expression on her face, even though she is holding a platter containing her two lopped-off breasts. She wears rich, flowing garments in bright colors – yellow, red and pink – that seem surprising in a work by Zurbarán, who painted so many religious figures in drab brown robes.

Other notable works in this section are a lovely painting of a seated woman dozing over her spinning (pictured at the top of this page), and a still life of apples and a pear, both by Gustave Courbet. Delacroix, Corot and Gustave Moreau also make appearances here.

"Freighters in the Port of Sète," by Paul Valéry.
“Freighters in the Port of Sète,” by Paul Valéry.

The show ends with works by Valéry himself. He enjoyed drawing and painting in watercolors throughout his life and was not untalented, but he never claimed to be an artist or tried to exhibit his work. I wonder what he would think of seeing them framed and on show here. Although many are quite accomplished (the sea views in Sète and the self-portraits), others are slightly embarrassing.

When he is remembered in France, Valéry is thought of as a rather austere figure, an image belied by descriptions of him by his friends as a brilliant, witty conversationalist and entertaining companion. His writing, too, is deemed to be of continued interest. Perhaps this exhibition and a documentary on his life that is currently being prepared for French television will spark renewed interest in his work.

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