Marcel Proust

The Société des amis de Marcel Proust et des amis de Combray is organising a subscription campaign this year to finance the acquisition of a painting by René Xavier PRINET (1861-1946), entitled La Plage, Cabourg, dated 1908.

This painting dates from 1908, the year Proust began writing A la recherche du temps perdu. Only a few hundred metres separated the Grand Hôtel de Cabourg, where he stayed during his many visits to the seaside town, from the Double Six, the seaside villa in which the artist lived. Although there is no formal proof that the two men met, it is clear that the atmosphere portrayed by Prinet corresponds exactly to that described by Proust, for example:

I knew my friends were on the dyke, but I couldn't see them as they walked past the uneven ridges of the sea, at the far end of which, perched among its bluish peaks like an Italian village, the little town of Rivebelle could sometimes be made out in a flash of light, its details carefully detailed by the sun.

À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs

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Born into a family of notables from the Franche-Comté region, René-Xavier Prinet joined the studio of painter Jean-Léon Gérôme at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1880. During his five years as an apprentice to a master at the height of his fame, he studied at the Académie Julian, where he made friends with several painters of his generation: Lucien Simon, André Dauchez, René Ménard, Charles Cottet and George Desvallières. Prinet made a name for himself when he first exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Français between 1885 and 1889, but from 1890 he turned to the more liberal Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-arts, founded that same year by Puvis de Chavannes.

After obtaining his first government commission in 1891 to decorate the Palais de la Légion d'Honneur, he took part in several major group exhibitions with Paul Durand-Ruel. At the 1893 Salon, he was associated by critics with his friends from the Académie Julian, grouped together under the term ‘Bande Noire’ or ‘Nubians’, in reference to the darker tones and contrasting effects of matter in their works, which were influenced by Courbet and Manet. Although their paintings quickly brightened up after contact with the Impressionists, they generally retained an intimate character of their own.

détail tableau Prinet 1
La Plage by René Xavier Prinet, détail

A gold medallist at the 1900 Universal Exhibition and a knight of the Légion d'honneur, Prinet enjoyed a solid reputation at the turn of the century. Along with several of his artist friends, he helped found the Société Nouvelle de Peintres et de Sculpteurs, chaired by Gabriel Mourey and later Auguste Rodin, whose exhibitions, held every year between 1900 and 1914 at the Galerie Georges Petit, were a great success. In 1904, he took his turn as a teacher, setting up the Académie de la Grande Chaumière workshops with Lucien Simon and Antoine Bourdelle. A regular exhibitor at international events, notably the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh from 1911, he was appointed secretary of the Société Nationale des Beaux-arts in 1913. After the Great War, he took part in the creation of the Salon des Tuileries in 1923, and ran a studio at the École des Beaux-Arts between 1926 and 1931. He won another medal at the 1937 International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques, and was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1943.

détail tableau Prinet 2
La Plage by René Xavier Prinet, détail

Depicting the beach at Cabourg in 1908, the large oil on canvas we are interested in here is one of Prinet's most sought-after works, both because of its Norman subject and its more luminist technique. In 1894, shortly after marrying Jeanne Jacquemin, the painter made his first stay at the villa ‘Double-Six’, owned by his parents-in-law and situated on the seafront of the seaside resort. Immediately attracted by the singular, picturesque elegance of the coastal town, he decided to set up a studio there to draw on for new subjects, particularly during the summer. At the turn of the century, Cabourg enjoyed a sudden surge in fashion, to the point of appearing as a rival to Trouville and Deauville. It gradually became one of the most popular holiday resorts for Parisians, to the point of being a direct inspiration for the ‘Balbec’ described by Marcel Proust in la Recherche. Like the novelist, Prinet's paintings bear witness to the social and family life of the seaside, and acutely capture the atmosphere of the Belle-Époque, in a suggestive style that owes much to the Impressionism of Eugène Boudin.

détail tableau Prinet 3
La Plage by René Xavier Prinet, détail

It was during his walks on the beach at Cabourg that the artist sketched bathers, children, fishermen and horsemen. Based on his drawings and photographs, he created large-scale canvases in his studio in Bourbonne-Les-Bains and Paris. For our painting, the painter has structured his composition by juxtaposing several figures in close-ups on a large diagonal expanse of yellow sand, contrasting subtly with the bluish hues of the sea to the left and the sky above. The foreground, as if deserted, is only animated on the right by the disorder of two empty chairs, one overturned, the other planted unbalanced in the ground. They seem to be waiting for the young couple camped out on the left of the canvas, sheltered under their white parasols and naturally catching our eye. Elegant, undoubtedly worldly, but as if frozen, the two young men appear to be posing for the painter. Behind them, on either side of the beach, governesses watch over little girls strolling or playing on the sand, a bather wrapped in white walks back to her tent, while other colourful couples under parasols can be seen in the background, as well as a fisherman leaning on his boat, which seems to close off our field of vision. In the top right-hand corner, above the red-striped tents, you can still see the shaded silhouette of the famous bandstand on the seafront. Prinet favoured light tones and a harmony of bright, primary colours, while the sun was still very high, accentuating the contrasts and marking the shadows.

Atelier de Prinet
René Xavier Prinet in his workshop

Dated 1908, and exhibited that same year at the Salon de la Société Nouvelle at the Galerie Georges Petit, our painting was widely acclaimed by the critics. The exhibition itself seems to have been a great success with the specialist press, as evidenced by François Monod's praise in Art et Décoration:

« Some strong and complete natures of artists in whom the hand of the colourist is at the service of a penetrating vision of nature, of a thoughtful imagination, of beautiful or vigorous conceptions; several of the names which represent today the living forces of French art; around them, a dozen painters who, with the diversity of their inclinations, have in common either a curious and delicate sensitivity in the analysis or in the imagination, or at least a note of finesse and distinction. Thus composed, the Society of Painters and Sculptors, the former Société Nouvelle, remains unique in the midst of so many exhibitions for its superior craftsmanship and taste. Its meeting was never more beautiful than this year.1. »

While he also considers the event to be « one of the most enjoyable exhibitions organised by this selected group2 », Arsène Alexandre made a point of quoting Prinet's works in the Figaro as one of the « good things3 ». This opinion is also shared by a critic of the Gil Blas who, while not hesitating to describe the opening of the exhibition as one of « the most brilliant4 », particularly highlights « René Prinet's charming and free beach views ». Indeed, among the six works presented by the artist5, four of them have Cabourg's6 coastal scenes as their subject and are more often noted for their more modern aspects. Alfred Jousselin praises the « clear, cheerful, luminous seascapes, with a very pleasant feeling, signed by Mr René Prinet.7 », and François Thiébault-Sisson was full of praise in the columns of Le Temps: « Has Prinet brought to a higher level than in his Salon rouge, his Baigneuses, his Plage and his Digue the qualities of material and colour that make him one of the most seductive painters of our time? Eugène Hoffmann, for his part, sees in our work the illustration of a certain aesthetic and plastic renewal on the part of its author: ‘M. Prinet is a delicate painter of intimacies, because he was born an observer; his talent for observation leads him to some charming discoveries when he attacks the plein-air: La Plage and La Vague are tasty pieces of artistry, struck from the right angle.9. »

La Plage de Cabourg
René Xavier Prinet, La Plage de Cabourg, Musée d'Orsay

Finally, let us leave it to Edouard Sarradin to conclude our discussion, by confirming that our painting is indeed a pivotal work within Prinet's body of work, tipping the latter into a greater modernity, still imbued with a singular poetry:

« We love him, René Prinet, for a whole past of discreet and finely harmonious works in which skill was never superior to feeling, and we love him for the fact that for some time now he has been renewing his gaze, turning away from provincial residences where, among the old familiar pieces of furniture, some nostalgic melancholy reigns, and here is this very sensitive artist closer to the light of day, closer to the life of today. With a palette where the sun has shone, with a brush that has softened in freedom, René Prinet has painted La Plage and Les Baigneuses, and it is not surprising that he has put a lot of spirit into them, the spirit that comes from observation itself and that creates a kind of living poem from a moment of reality.10. »

1 : Monod, François, « Chronique - L’Exposition de peintres et de sculpteurs », Art et Décoration, Supplément, avril 1908, p.1
2 : Alexandre, Arsène, « La vie artistique - La Société Nouvelle », Le Figaro, 16 mars 1908, p. 5.
3 : « Il y a diverses autres bonnes choses à ce salonnet, notamment les envois de [...] M. Prinet», in Alexandre, Arsène, « La vie artistique - La Société Nouvelle », Le Figaro, 16 mars 1908, p. 5.
4 : « Le vernissage de l'Exposition des peintres sculpteurs fut, hier, chez Georges Petit, des plus brillants. », in Le Diable Boiteux, « Échos - Vernissage », Gil Blas, 14 mars 1908, p. 1.
5 : « De M. Prinet, un envoi copieux, mais disparate », in Thomsen, Jean, « Les Expositions », Le Petit Journal, 23 mars 1908, p. 2.
6 : Outre La Plage (cat. n° 82), Prinet expose La Vague (cat. n° 83), Baigneuse (cat. n° 84), La Digue (cat. n° 85).
7 : Jousselin, Alfred, « Les P'tits Salons - Exposition de peintres et de sculpteurs », Le Radical, 1er avril 1908, p. 2.
8 : Thiébault-Sisson, François, « Au jour le jour-Choses d’art », Le Temps, 26 mars 1908, p. 3.
9 : Hoffmann, Eugène, « Comptes rendus des expositions - peintres et sculpteurs », Journal des artistes, 22 mars 1908, p. 5706.
10 : Sarradin, Edouard, « Notes d’art - L’Exposition de peintres et de sculpteurs », Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, 15 mars 1908, p. 3.