Impressionist & Modern Art

Octave Mirbeau: Champion of the French Avant-Garde

By Sotheby's
Octave Mirbeau photographed by Paul François Arnold Cardon, 1897

W hile best-known as an anti-establishment polemicist and author of such works as Le Jardin des supplices, Octave Mirbeau’s perhaps most impactful cultural legacy rests in his championing of numerous Impressionist and Post-Impressionist titans. Born in Normandy in 1848, Mirbeau ultimately emerged as an fervent anarchist journalist in Third Republic Paris. As new art galleries and exhibition venues appeared, Mirbeau began to frequent the ateliers of artists. Fulfilling the need of Parisians who desired critics to discern the most impressive art being exhibited, Mirbeau undertook a lifelong crusade to uplift artists who depicted the world unfettered by academic convention. An outspoken early advocate of artists including Cézanne, Pissarro, Renoir, Van Gogh and many others, Octave Mirbeau holds an indelible influence on the development of modern art history.

Octave Mirbeau and Claude Monet

From their passion for gardening to their support of Alfred Dreyfus’ innocence in the Dreyfus Affair, Claude Monet and Octave Mirbeau held significant ideological and intellectual commonalities that maintained a thirty year-long friendship. First meeting on November 17, 1884 at the invitation of gallerist Paul Durand-Ruel, Mirbeau and Monet quickly developed a brotherly admiration for one another and a mutual understanding of the goals of artistic production. As Mirbeau exclaimed in a letter to Monet, “We completely agree: in painting, it is through the eyes that thought must be excited. First, the eyes must be charmed, moved.” (quoted in Pierre Michel and Jean-François Nivet, Tusson, 1900, p. 118).

Claude Monet, La cabane du douanier, Varengeville, 1882, oil on canvas. Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge.

Mirbeau penned his first review regarding Monet in his column Notes sur l’art for La France newspaper just four days after their first meeting. Decrying the abundant criticism of Monet’s work, Mirbeau began his text as follows: “What will people think of us later when they say that all those who were the great artists and who will carry, in posterity, the glory of this half-century , have been insulted, vilified, joked about?...Claude Monet is one of the most insulted among the insulted.” (Octave Mirbeau, La France, 21 November 1884, n.p.) Recognizing the significance of such an article being published in an important and widely-read press outlet, Monet gifted La cabane du douanier, Varengeville and Les oliviers à Bordighera to Mirbeau in gratitude. In turn, Mirbeau continued to write numerous positive reviews of Monet in various publications for the next twenty-eight years.

Octave Mirbeau’s review of Monet’s paintings, “Exposition Internationale de La Rue de Sèze”, Gil Blas, 13 May 1887

In such articles, Mirbeau continually underscored Monet’s unrivaled capacity to distill the essence of an instant moment and capture the changes of nature and light. As described in one such review, “ [With Monet’s paintings,] art disappears, fades away, and we find ourselves only in the presence of living nature, completely conquered and tamed by this miraculous painter" (Octave Mirbeau, "L'Exposition Monet-Rodin", Gil Blas, 22 June 1889, n.p). Mirbeau further highlighted Monet’s exemplary nature as an artist in defiance of the doctrines of contemporaneous art schools, as well as his unceasing efforts to perfect his practice and supersede his past output. Mirbeau was thus integral in cementing the public credibility of Monet and catapulting him from an artist of moderate renown to one of international celebrity.

Claude Monet, Tempête à Belle-Île , 1886, oil on canvas. Private Collection. To be offered at Sotheby’s New York, 14 November 2022, lot 121.

Tempête à Belle-Île, executed two years after their meeting, was likely acquired by Mirbeau when Monet visited the writer at his home on the Breton island of Noirmoutiers in November 1886. At the suggestion of Mirbeau, Monet had spent several months painting the rocky and rugged coastline of the nearby island of Belle-Île-en-Mer. In a review of this series the following year, Mirbeau declares, “[With] the seas of Belle-Ile…one can say that he truly invented the sea, for he is the only one who has understood it in this way and rendered it, with its changing aspects, its enormous rhythms, its movement, its infinite and constantly renewed reflections, its smell” (quoted in “Exposition Internationale de La Rue de Sèze, Gil Blas, 13 May 1887, n.p.). A testament to the importance of this work to Mirbeau, Tempête à Belle-Ile posthumously remained in the collection of his wife until her death in 1938, unlike the many works sold at the 1919 auction of his estate.

Octave Mirbeau and Paul Gauguin

Mirbeau first encountered Paul Gauguin in January 1891 through mutual acquaintances Stéphane Mallarmé and Camille Pissarro. Initially viewing Gauguin’s work at the home of collector Émile Schuffenecker and later meeting the artist at his home in Damps, Mirbeau swiftly became an ardent supporter of his practice. Determined to voyage to Tahiti by this time, Gauguin scheduled an auction of his works at the Hôtel Drouot for February 23 of that year to raise sufficient funds for his boat trip to the South Pacific. To support Gauguin’s ambitions, Mirbeau authored two laudatory reviews of the artist in L’Écho de Paris and Le Figaro that month. In L’Écho de Paris, and again in the preface to Gauguin’s Hôtel Drouot auction catalogue, Mirbeau extols, “Never satisfied with what he has created, he always goes searching for what is beyond…until he arrives at a spiritual synthesis, a profound and eloquent expression.” (quoted in Ernest Flammarion, ed., Des artistes, première série, 1885-1896, peintres et sculpteurs, Paris, 1922, p. 139) Mirbeau further praises his work as, “strangely cerebral, passionate…to understand it, to feel its shock, one must have known sadness and the irony of sadness, which is the threshold of mystery…Mr. Gauguin creates an art wholly personal and new, the art of a painter and a poet, of an apostle and a demon” (ibid, p. 140-41).

Never satisfied with what he has created, he always goes searching for what is beyond…until he arrives at a spiritual synthesis, a profound and eloquent expression.”
Octave Mirbeau in Ernest Flammarion, ed., Des artistes, première série, 1885-1896, peintres et sculpteurs, Paris, 1922, p. 139

Owing in large part to Mirbeau’s widely-read praise, Gauguin sells ten thousand francs’ worth of artwork, enough to finance his journey, at auction. This first trip to Tahiti the following month catalyzes the body of work for which he is most influential and recognized, which includes paintings such as Ia Orana Maria (Ave Maria) and The Seed of the Areoi.

Left: Paul Gauguin, Ia Orana Maria (Ave Maria), 1891, oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Right: Paul Gauguin, The Seed of the Areoi, 1892, oil on burlap. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Paul Gauguin, Jeune fille et renard (étude pour La Perte du pucelage) , circa 1891, conté crayon, white pastel and red chalk over graphite on light brown wove paper. Private Collection. To be offered at Sotheby’s New York, 14 November 2022, lot 134

With beguiling yet foreboding imagery reflective of Mirbeau’s above-stated sentiments, Jeune fille et renard (étude pour La Perte du pucelage) was likely acquired by Mirbeau shortly after the work’s completion during one of their initial meetings in early 1891. The present work remained in Mirbeau’s personal collection until his death in 1917.

Octave Mirbeau and Auguste Rodin

Alongside Claude Monet, Auguste Rodin was one of Mirbeau’s most beloved artists. Mirbeau first met Rodin and began to frequent his studio at the rue de l'Université in autumn of 1994, when the writer was appointed head art critic of La France newspaper. Fascinated by Rodin’s creative genius and his peculiar, antisocial demeanor, Mirbeau rapidly became his most vocal proponent in the press. Publishing nineteen articles about Rodin between 1885 and 1914, Mirbeau wrote about Rodin more than he did any other artist.

Auguste Rodin, Portrait d’homme (Octave Mirbeau), charcoal, white chalk and estompe on paper, circa 1898. Private Collection

Deliberately describing his sculptures in a manner accessible to the general public, Mirbeau characterized Rodin as an artist whose asceticism allowed him to diverge from prevailing academic norms. Mirbeau notably deemed Rodin as the modern iteration of Michaelangelo, underscoring his capacity to vitalize the media with which he worked. In his 1895 review of the inauguration of Les Bourgeois de Calais, Mirbeau exclaims, "What is so poignant about Rodin's figures, what makes them touch us so violently, is that we find ourselves in them.. To give an idea of this beauty of art, increased still further by an admirable vision of history, I would need long pages, because all is to be studied, to be retained in this powerful work, the most beautiful, the most completely beautiful, of French sculpture, and the original simplicity of the composition, and the so intense life which it expresses, and the tragic majesty which envelops it as of an atmosphere of terror, and especially the control of a trade of which M. Auguste Rodin is perhaps alone. Auguste Rodin is perhaps the only one today to know the most secret perfections" (Octave Mirbeau, "Auguste Rodin", Le Journal, 2 June 1895 n.p).

Auguste Rodin, Les Bourgeois de Calais: five bronzes , conceived between 1887 and 1895, these reductions conceived between 1895-1903 and these casts made in 1927-28, bronze. Private Collection. To be offered at Sotheby’s New York, 14 November 2022, lot 112

Despite differing in their ideological and political beliefs, with Rodin a conservative anti-Dreyfusard, Mirbeau never faltered in his ardent support of the sculptor. Regularly declaring Rodin’s works masterpieces, Mirbeau sought to deflect the numerous scandals with which he was involved, from his controversial depiction of Honoré de Balzac to his dispute with the Société des Gens de Lettres. Proclaiming to Mirbeau in 1910, “you have done everything in my life, and you have made it successful." (quoted in Pierre Michel and Jean-François Nivet, préface de la Correspondance avec Auguste Rodin, Tusson, 1988, p. 10), Rodin donated eleven of his plaster and bronze works to Mirbeau in gratitude.

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