At the turn of the century, around 1900 in Paris, a generation of young, 30-year-old artists was heard, who, influenced by neo-Gothic and symbolism, laid the foundations for a new art. They started as painters, only to devote themselves to decorative activities shortly afterwards, designing applied art and creating graphics. They wanted to realize the idea of “total art”, present in every aspect of everyday life*. It is hard to imagine a more convenient time and place to promote a new movement than the Universal World Exhibition, which took place in Paris in 1900 and opened its doors to almost 51 million people. A significant part of its exhibition was devoted to the art of the emerging Art Nouveau style**.
The name ‘Art Nouveau’ itself first appeared in 1884 in the Belgian magazine “L’Art Moderne”. It describes the activities undertaken by a group of twenty artists, painters and sculptors “Les Vingt” proclaiming the slogan “synthesis of all arts”. This movement undoubtedly took its beginning from the reformative activities undertaken in the Anglo-Saxon countries by the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic movements. The influence on the quick spread of the name of the new art was the work of Samuel Siegfried Bing, who in the 90s opened the gallery called “Salon de l’Art Nouveau”***.
Characteristic, decorative, inspired by the world of nature, flexible, wavy lines dominated the ornamental layer of artistic crafts, painting and sculpture of the period from the 80s of the 19th century to the outbreak of the First World War. One of the representatives of the new art was Henri-Jules-Ferdinand Bellery-Desfontaines.
Henri-Jules-Ferdinand Bellery-Desfontaines (1867-1909)**** was a French painter, lithographer and designer of applied art. He studied at the Académie Julian in Paris with Pierre-Victor Galland, William Bouguereau and Jean-Paul Laurens. The cooperation between the student and the masters was also continued outside the walls of the university in decorative projects carried out in Paris. The artist exhibited his works at the Salons of the Société des Artistes Français and the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts*****. The painter died at the age of 42. He left many unfulfilled projects behind him.
Description of the painting:
The painting “Youth” was purchased for the Rogalin collection probably already in the year of its creation, at the time of Henri-Jules-Ferdinand Bellery-Desfontaines’s debut as a member of the Salon Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The work is maintained in the Art Nouveau style. The previous year, in 1898, a similar composition was presented by the artist in the lithograph “L’Énigme” (“The Riddle”). In the foreground we see the figures of a young woman and a man intertwined in a loving embrace. The couple is shown against a lush green vegetation. In this context, the title “youth” can be interpreted as a period of unrestricted happiness, idyllic, compared to this blissful paradise. Youth is inextricably linked here with accompanying love. Created for each other – the only man and the only woman. Naked, intertwined bodies of lovers, the curvature of the lines outlining them, their flexibility refer to the well-known style of art at the beginning of the century.
The dependence on the surrounding nature was emphasized by the dominant in the presentation, vibrant flora. In Bellery-Desfontaines’s work, the vegetation is shown in its natural form and in its original environment. It becomes a living ornament and an uncontrolled ornament, even beyond the frames of the composition, such as the climbing sweet pea.
In “Youth” the hierarchy introduced by the artist draws attention. Art Nouveau pays particular attention to female figures. It idealizes their silhouette, emphasizing its delicacy, subtlety and soft modeling. On Bellery-Desfontaines’s painting the same, honored woman puts a golden wreath on the head of her chosen one. The wreath crown becomes a symbol of his victory, precedence, but also crowning, honoring the skills he possesses.
“Youth” in Bellery-Desfontaines’s view is uncontrolled, just like the lush vegetation accompanying it. It is full of passion, but also wisdom, as it wants to preserve its place in paradise as long as possible.