Léon Lhermitte (1844-1925) was born in Mont-Saint-Père in the Aisne region of France and lived there until he was about twenty. His father was a school teacher and he came from a humble family which explains his deep attachment to rural life in his work. His paintings, pastels and drawings focused on the work and daily life in the countryside of his time and were executed in Lhermitte’s distinctively naturalistic technique and with the precise rendering of the tiniest details.
Lhermitte’s artistic talent was evident at a young age, and in 1863 he travelled to Paris where he was awarded a scholarship enabling him to enroll at the École Impériale de Dessin. There he was taught by Lecoq de Boisbaudran, who also taught Auguste Rodin. Here he was introduced to a type of study of drawing that was based on memorisation, a technique also used by James McNeill Whistler. In this way he could view a scene, especially a landscape scene, and more fully execute the painting back in his studio.
Early in his artistic career, Lhermitte earned his living with minor illustrative and engraving work and it was shortly after beginning his artistic training that one of his drawings was admitted at the Salon in Paris in 1864; his first painting was accepted in 1866. In that same year he was invited to illustrate Frédéric Henriet's book, “Paysagiste aux Champs”. In 1869 he went to London where he met Alphonse Legros, who introduced him to the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who later went on to sell Lhermitte’s paintings at his New Bond Street gallery.
At the 1874 Paris Salon, Lhermitte won recognition with “The Harvest” a large scale painting depicting the life and people of his native village of Mont-Saint-Père. This same year Lhermitte spent several months in Brittany where he became fascinated with Breton culture; their costumes, their activities, their celebrations, the colorful nature of their life. Throughout the next five years he returned to this region on several occasions and exhibited more scenes from Breton life.
Lhermitte was greatly admired by fellow artists, including Auguste Rodin, Vincent van Gogh and Puvis de Chavannes. Lhermitte was invited to participate in the Fourth Exhibition of the Impressionists by Edgar Degas, but refused. The art gallery Boussod, Valadon et Cie., signed a contract with Lhermitte for the exclusive rights to sell his paintings. His associations with dealers and his increasing reliance on charcoal and pastel drawings put him in contact with another international dealer, Wallis, who had galleries in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States, thus disseminating Lhermitte’s vision of rustic life throughout the Western world.
Lhermitte rejuvenated traditional themes of academic art by executing them with progressive techniques. Lhermitte took the recognised imagery of the peasant and rural life and reintroduced it by using more contemporary media, such as pastels. For these innovations, Lhermitte was praised and admired by his contemporaries and modern audiences alike, Lhermitte brought the image of rural life and landscape into the twentieth century.
In his image of rustic life, Lhermitte focused not only on peasant life in the fields, for which he earned the title, “the singer of wheat,” but also on interior scenes of peasant life at home, infused with the interior detailing and emphasis on light effects in his scenes. He also became a devoted depicter of mother and child, an emotional theme that showed Lhermitte’s sensitivity to the issues of family and relationships. His interest in femininity also extended to peasant women washing their clothes along the river basin, especially along the Marne. In these cases, Lhermitte combined each of his interests to create his compositions.
Lhermitte was awarded many notable commissions by the French Government, one in particular was the decoration of the Salle des Commissions in the Sorbonne, and later in his career he went on to execute a monumental market scene for the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. Lhermitte was created officer of the Légion d'Honneur in 1884 and was awarded the Grand Prize at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889 where Lhermitte exhibited seven paintings. In 1905 he became a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. After the First World War his health, which had never been very good, deteriorated and made it very difficult for him to continue his work, however Lhermitte continued to execute some pastels depicting scenes of rural life until his death in 1925.
Lhermitte’s drawings, pastels and oil paintings are proudly displayed in numerous museums around the world including the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Museo Nacional Thyssen Bornemisza in Madrid, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to name but a few.