Early in his life, Le Mayeur developed his skill while serving as an army painter and photographer in World War I. He joined a group of twenty-seven artists assembled by Anne-Pierre de Kat and his tasks included drawing and painting the events of battle, including but not limited to graphic fighting and ravaged landscapes. The violence of the war deeply affected Le Mayeur, and arguably sparked his interest in the exotic, resulting in his pilgrimage to more cheerful settings such as Venice, the South of France, North Africa, Cambodia, Burma and Madagascar, to name a few.
The piece at hand, Sous la tente à St. Tropez, strongly reflects the calm, romanticized depiction of life that Le Mayeur sought following the war. Set in the South of France, on one of Le Mayeur’s first journeys, it retains a happy, uncomplicated character. It features women on a beach, focusing on two key figures in the foreground of the painting that are surrounded by an assortment of objects that repeat throughout his work such as dolls, bottles and parasols, the last of which makes a reappearance in his Balinese body of work as seen in Resting under the umbrella. The use of objects alongside human figures adds to the intended effect – that of an everyday scene that is devoid of great import, a defining characteristic of impressionism.
Impressionism developed in Paris during the 1860s and continued to spread as one of the first distinctly modern movements in painting. It was a movement concerned with capturing moments of sunlight and color, the impression objects made in an instant. For this reason, many impressionists painted en plein air, focusing on ordinary scenes outside of the studio. Started by artists who were anti-establishment, Impressionism turned away from fine detail, wanting to focus on the appearance of light to convey shifts in atmosphere and to create a sensory effect. Examples of Impressionism would include works by Claude Monet, notably Haystacks (End of Summer) that uses a well-chosen color palette to mimic the effect of soft lighting, creating a sense of depth and form with shadow and gestural brush strokes.
Le Mayeur conforms to these Impressionist standards; his work is characterized by his identification as a luminist and as a colorist. In the present work, he has used bright yet soft pastel colors to create a buoyant, sunny atmosphere. His use of yellow throughout the piece connotes warmth both literally and figuratively and contributes to a sense of beachside stupor while his use of pink as a unifying color across the figures in the piece perpetuates a strong sense of happiness and health. Much like other Impressionists, Le Mayeur applies the paint with short, thick brush strokes and maintains a sense of looseness throughout the painting, creating a sense of depth and volume through color relationships alone. Known for his direct and well-aimed rendering of tonal values and expertise in customized color palettes, Sous la tente à St. Tropez demonstrates a fair few of Le Mayeur’s stylistic trademarks.
Throughout his body of work, Le Mayeur repeats a pictorial theme of women, shown in both the present piece as well as in Two Women on the Beach. The distinguishable figures in Sous la tente à St. Tropez are all female, but their faces and bodies are mere suggestions, accurate to the general form but containing little to no recognizable detail. This emphasizes the use of femininity to add to the colorful idyll and diminishes focus on the women as individuals. The portrayal of the female form had to be studied; during this period, Le Mayeur dedicated time to producing sketches of women, honing his masterful ability to quickly record form and movement, seen clearly in his Study of Two Nudes. It is evident that the artist mastered the technique of foreshortening, shown in his varied angles of the human body. The recurrence of women as a theme highlights Le Mayeur’s perfectionism of his skill and commitment to his inspiration.
In the painting at hand, Le Mayeur has managed to capture a fleeting moment on a beach in the South of France. In the pursuit of light, color and beauty, he has paid close attention to how his artistic choices affect the sensory reception of the audience, creating a painting that is at once an artwork and an experience. Aside from its value as a prime example of Impressionism, Sous la tente à St. Tropez gains even more significance when Le Mayeur’s formative years as an artist are understood. Juxtaposed with imagined events of war, Sous la tente à St. Tropez encapsulates peace and freedom, a universal source of inspiration.
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