The wild flowers which had died back during the winter months are in bloom in Bastien-Lepage’s painting of a young shepherdess, Fleur du Chemin. The abundant white heads of Queen Anne’s Lace, a rogue among the crops, dominates the more delicate ox-eye daisies, poppies and other flowers that blossom at the edges of the large rolling fields of north-eastern France. Being a terrain close to the artist’s home village of Damvillers, they were completely familiar. The girl who passes the viewer, in addition to her staff, carries a bunch of what appear to be golden ragwort, common in these regions. Her flock is unseen and, unlike the iconic shepherdesses of Jean-François Millet, overtones of rustic piety are missing. Indeed, where Millet’s grande bergère is clothed and cloaked against the windswept plain of Chailly, Lepage’s is dressed in a well-worn coat, striped skirt and long black shoes that are evidently too big for her. Framed by thick golden curls, her gaze is nevertheless compelling. The painter would have us believe that she is a wayside flower, blooming unkempt, on the hillsides of the Meuse.
A pretty face, a look echoing the belle allure of bucolic eighteenth century rustics, the stock-in-trade of numerous Second Empire genre painters, might be all we should expect in such a work, yet Lepage takes his characterisation to a deeper level. Seeing the reaction to the resting fieldworkers in Les Foins (1877, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), he pursued his research into states of mind by attending Jean-Martin Charcot’s lectures at La Salpetrière. The great physician was the first to describe cataleptic trance-like states in patients from the asylum and this new knowledge was controversially applied to the characterisation of Jeanne d’Arc écoutant les Voix (1879, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, fig. 1).
Hypnotized, and groping forward to grasp the unknown, the national heroine had never been shown in such a challenging way. While many critics were appalled, it was the perspicacious American journalist, William Cary Brownell, who declared the face of Jeanne d’Arc “a masterpiece” and defined the particular character of the artist’s work. “It is not pictorial; it is not poetic; it is psychological,” he asserted. Lepage wanted to simulate a real life encounter and to see behind the eyes of his subjects; he wanted the mind’s construction in the facial expressions of his peasant characters and, in the midst of the feverish debate surrounding his work, Brownell concluded that in Paris “where the ground of artistic discussion is so well cleared … controversy is merely another form of eulogy” (Brownell, ‘Bastien-Lepage: Painter and Psychologist’, The Magazine of Art, 1883, pp. 267, 270-1). When the writer further reflected in 1901 on that far-off critical debate it seemed clear that “all his peasant women are potentially Jeannes d’Arc,” and in the overgrown orchard garden at Domrémy-la-Pucelle, all nature was bent to the artist’s purpose (Brownell, French Art, Classic and Contemporary Painting and Sculpture, New York, 1901, p. 85-6).
That powerful sense of another’s presence provided by Lepage’s work is carried forward into a sequence of canvases begun during the winter of 1881-2, showing single peasant children from the painter’s native terrain. Fleur du Chemin should be placed in sequence following Pauvre Fauvette (1881, Glasgow Museums, fig. 2), Pas Mèche (1882, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, fig. 3) and La Petite Coquette (Allant à l’école) (1882, Aberdeen Art Gallery). In each instance the painter seeds covert meanings into the image. While the barge-boy in Pas Mèche is self-assertive, the girl grazing her cow in Pauvre Fauvette shivers in the winter cold. She is metaphorically the wild sparrow (fauvette) that darts about the countryside, just as her companion in the present work is a wildflower of the roadside (McConkey, “Pauvre Fauvette or Petite Folle, a study of Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Pauvre Fauvette,” Arts Magazine, 1981, p. 140-5; Dominique Lobstein ed., Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1848-1884, 2007, exh. cat., Musée d’Orsay, Paris, p. 148).
Flower symbolism and a close attention to surface detail connect Fleur du Chemin to the works of the British Pre-Raphaelites who made such an impact in Paris at the Exposition Universelle in 1878 (Jacques Lethève, “La connaisance des peintres préraphaelites anglais en France (1855-1900),” Gazette des Beaux Arts, vol. 53, May-June 1959, p. 315-28). French critics were astonished at this display – particularly by Edward Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin, (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), the exposition’s star attraction, in which the figures are enclosed in clumps of tiny white hawthorn flowers, symbolizing Merlin’s vain attempts at rebirth. Lepage would later paint a portrait sketch of the British artist (1880-1884, Birmingham Museum) and by this time the Pre-Raphaelites were frequently cited as a major influence (Brownell, 1883, p. 267).
Not only was Lepage attentive to the covert meanings of birth and death, youth and age, innocence and lost love, all concealed in the language of flowers, but on regular summer visits to London after 1879, he also responded to the Naturalism of the early work of John Everett Millais. While Millais’ Ophelia and Lepage’s Les Foins were well-known through high quality engravings, it was The Athenaeum which first noticed the obvious similarities between Les Foins and “that which Mr Millais practiced when he produced Ophelia and The Huguenot” (“The Grosvenor Gallery’, The Athenaeum, 1880, p. 605). The words were prophetic because in the summer of 1881, Lepage began and then abandoned his own version of La Mort d’Ophélie (Musée des Beaux Arts, Nancy). Pathetically posed by a woodland stream, she is surrounded, as here, by narcotic clumps of Queen Anne’s Lace or hemlock (both toxic). Although chosen for its mood of cataleptic distraction, its conception was too close to that of Jeanne d’Arc, and the canvas remains uncompleted.
The unwavering fix on mental states was nevertheless carried forward and at the same time, far from imitating Millet’s charm in the sequence of pictures of peasant children, Brownell wondered “at the girl’s unconsciousness in the presence of such searching scrutiny,” in his Faneuse au repos, (1881, Nationalgalleriet, Oslo) (Brownell, 1883, p. 271). These words could apply with more acuity to Fleur du Chemin, for though the child looks out at the viewer, it is clear that her gaze contains that “pining for far off things …utterly undefinable in words” that was “Bastien-Lepage’s favourite problem,” (Brownell, 1883, p. 271).
It is likely that this particular model was that used in his characterisation of youth and age in Le Père Jacques (fig. 4), the Salon painting of 1882. Fleur du Chemin remained in the artist’s studio at the time of his death and it can clearly be seen in a commemorative etching by Myrbach-Rheinfeld (fig. 5) based on a contemporary photograph. When any trace of the picture beyond archival photographs was lost, a tiny unlocated drawing of the composition, cut from a letter, was reproduced in the artist’s catalogue raisonné (Aubrun, no. D377, p. 238). There is, however, no doubt of the painting’s rich after-life in the memories of the artist’s numerous followers.