19th Century European Paintings

Visionary Scenes: Ernst Josephson's Parisian Masterpiece

By Richard Lowkes

T hink of a turn of the century Scandinavian artist whose career was defined by angst, illness, and questions of identity, and the name that probably comes to mind is Edvard Munch. But before Munch there was Ernst Josephson, a Swedish-Jewish artist who travelled widely in Europe and settled in Paris at the age of 28. Our 19th Century European Paintings sale presents Josephson’s 14 juillet, on public view for the first time in over twenty years.

Ernst Josephson, 14 juillet. Estimate: £400,000–600,000.

Showing at the annual Salon, Josephson established himself as the leading Scandinavian artist in the city, and a key figure among the Opponenterna (Opponents) who sought to reform the art world back home in Sweden.  But in 1888, less than ten years after settling in Paris, the artist was participating in séances on the island of Bréhat off Brittany. Struggling with setbacks in his artistic and personal life, Josephson’s declining mental health culminated in a profound breakdown. Possessed by messianic hallucinations, he turned to painting visionary scenes in a proto-expressionist style.

Josephson’s 14 juillet is a scene of modern life: the work is one of the artist’s most significant painted in Paris. Depicted are a group of Italian musicians on the terrace outside the artist’s studio, with French tricolours streaming to celebrate Bastille day. Although at the time the centenary of the storming of the Bastille was approaching, the day had only recently been inaugurated as France’s national holiday.

Hugo Birger, The Scandinavian Artists' Lunch at Café Ledoyen, Paris, 1886, Gothenburg Museum of Art, Sweden (Josephson, bald and bearded, is seated in the centre of the people to the right of the table; the other artists depicted include Albert Edelfelt, Ville Vallgren, Carl Larsson, and Georg Pauli)

Josephson’s key modern influences were Gustave Courbet, whose former studio he happened to be using at the time, and Édouard Manet, who died in 1883, the same year that Josephson painted 14 juillet. A foreigner in Paris himself, Josephson shared Manet’s interest in gypsies, street musicians, and the marginal figures of the city, with whom he doubtless empathised. Both painters drew inspiration from the Baroque artist Diego Velásquez. The art of Spain was particularly fresh in Josephson’s mind at the time, as he had recently travelled to the country with fellow artist Anders Zorn.

The main work to come out of that trip was Spanish Blacksmiths, a version of which is now in the Oslo National Gallery. Josephson attempted to have that work accepted by the Salon jury for two years running; unsuccessful on the second occasion, the jury instead agreed to accept 14 juillet. The work was then shown at that year’s Paris Salon, and immediately afterwards at the Scandinavian exhibition in Copenhagen. Included in the Josephson centenary retrospective in Stockholm in 1951, 14 juillet was last exhibited in 1995.

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