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A dream tea on the terrace

"Clocks slay time... time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life."

William Faulkner

This is my painting of the day. In English it's called Tea on the Terrace at Sainte-Maxime, in French - Le goûter sur la terrasse à Sainte-Maxime and it's by an artist called Henri Lebasque. He painted this in 1914 according to my art calendar, and according to Christies it was sold for just over $1 million in 2011 - I think to an American collector, so probably American dollars. Jean Shrimpton owned it for a couple of years in the early 70s. Mind you which of these versions I do not know. Indeed are there three different paintings here or just three different online reproductions of one? The Christie's version is the bottom one, which seems to be somewhere in between the two above in terms of colour. Fundamentally though, I think all three are the same painting, cropped in different ways and reproduced differently resulting in the different colour hues. Which just goes to show that you really need to see the real thing to see what the actual colour is.

Does it matter? Well yes, I think it does. The first one - the one I have on my calendar is much more brightly coloured and therefore gives a different impression of that day, and therefore the overall ambience. Perhaps an unrealistic one. Is the sea ever that blue? It also gives an impression of a hotter day than the others. A more vivid day. But then the artist was sometimes associated with the Fauves who were very definitely into bright colours. The bright colours depict a heightened sense of reality I guess - the sea was bluer than blue, the peaches were lusciously red ... which in a kind of way emphasises the importance of that moment in the memory. Over-perfection I guess. The second one is a tiny bit wishy-washy and could even be taken as a preliminary sketch - an idea of the composition of the picture without worrying too much about the colour. More dreamlike perhaps. And the last is I suspect the closest to the 'real' except that it has been cropped top and bottom.

Through my very non art educated eyes, there are a few things that struck me about this painting.

My first thought - noticing the fruit on the table - was to wonder whether I could use it for my blog today and if so how? And see - after some time browsing the internet - I decided that yes indeed I could. There was food in the picture you see, and it reminded me of so many hours spent on beautiful terraces with friends and family in the south of France (and elsewhere), picking at fruit and various other wonderful things. We have even been to Sainte-Maxime, although merely to park our car and take the ferry to St. Tropez. Much the best way to get to St. Tropez by the way. Otherwise it's a long trek along a very busy road around the bay and then you have to find a car park at the end. Poor David had to do this because his sister, in one of her less endearing moments, insisted she didn't want to go on the boat - boring - been there done that ...

But I digress. Perhaps the best commentary on this painting was found on a French website called Rivage de Bohème (alas it's in French) in which it theorises that within the larger painting is this small still-life, and also that all of the characters are holding, eating or peeling fruit, thus emphasising our relationship with the natural world. Perhaps a bit of a stretch, but yes that is definitely a still-life, and that fact is emphasised by the second thing that caught my eye - the artfully arranged tablecloth that doesn't quite cover the table, so that you can see the table underneath. Very reminiscent of a multitude of styled photographs of food that we see today don't you think?

The other totally modern thing about it was the pose of the young girl sitting on the wall. She is peeling fruit I think but she so looks as if she is texting on her smart phone. It's such a modern pose for an early 20th century young girl.

The last particularity that I noticed was the head of the lady in red coming up the steps one assumes. I am sure that it looked like that, but it was sort of odd. She is too close for ordinary steps - more like a ladder almost. And the young nude boy perhaps looks more like a statue of a cherub than a real child, which may well have been deliberate.

Overall though the artist captures a moment in time - a frozen moment in time - to be remembered down the ages as a state of perfection. Others say this much better than I:

"il exprime la poésie du quotidien. La sérénité, peut-être le bonheur, peuvent naître de l'intimité familiale et de l’harmonie entre l’homme et la nature. (He expresses the poetry of the everyday. The serenity, perhaps happiness, can give birth to family intimacy and the harmony between man and nature)" - apologies - I've lost the source for this quote

"capturing his family gatherings with a devotion that set him apart from other painters." - this one too - no source that is

He did indeed paint this terrace a few times. Here are three that show the terrace from a different viewpoint, but with the same people - well some of them. I think the middle one is a sketch version of the one on the right, and the one on the left is different again a sort of subset, more impressionistic version of the final one.

And then there is this one too. Possibly even more idyllic and even more beautiful. I wonder how much that one cost.

Henri Lebasque (1865-1937) - what a difference in life between those two dates. Crinolines to almost WW2. I wonder at the changes that people who lived through those times saw. He was French of course, from the north, but when he travelled to the south around 1906 for the first time, he fell in love with it. In fact I would defy anyone not to. He loved it so much that he made several trips there with his family - a couple to Sainte Maxime, and finally settled at Le Cannet near Cannes where he died. He has been given the acronym: «Peintre de la joie de de la lumière», ("Painter of joy and of light)

Which seems to me to perfectly describe these particular paintings. He is a tiny bit later than the Impressionists, but obviously heavily influenced by them. He was friends with many of the well-known artists of the time - Bonnard seems to be particularly mentioned - and yes he was also a part of the Fauves movement and a friend of Matisse.

Yes I know this is supposed to be a blog about food, and the link here is a little bit remote but it did remind me of so many such moments on our French holidays. Perhaps due to COVID nostalgia seems to be an increasingly frequent topic. So I scanned my vast photo library and found nothing comparable to the first painting. Well I found photographs of groups of us sitting around various tables in various beautiful locations but just about all of them were posed with the inevitable forced nature of the moment and the occasional odd face, closed eyes or blockage. There were a couple of evocative photographs of empty tables, but that is really not the same thing at all. Of course they brought back the memories, but they didn't point to something more meaningful of something greater than that particular moment. And those particular moments too were also special in that they were outside our 'normal' lives, whereas Lebasque's appear to be moments in everyday life. The people are, of course, posing - or rather, in these cases some are actually posing - the adults and others are just doing their thing, and the artist has chosen to represent the overall pose, but not an actual one. Of course time has passed since they were painted and so they are now also documents of a time long past - a somewhat dreamlike and perfect time in the popular imagination, although of course it was not. It was painted in 1914 on the brink of WW1. Which gives it an added perspective that would not have been there at the time it was painted. Then it was just everyday life with all the meanings that you can attach to that.

"The years go by. The time, it does fly. Every single second is a moment in time that passes. And it seems like nothing - but when you're looking back ... well, it amounts to everything." Ray Bradbury

It also kind of makes the painting appear more real than my photographs, although of course the photograph is also capable of doing the same thing - but alas, not in my poor attempts.

"Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still." Dorothea Lange

If you substitute the word painting for photograph then Dorothea Lange - a renowned photographer - is describing Lebasque's paintings perfectly. She, of course, is responsible for this most famous of photographs. A photograph which was intended to make people think about the plight of the poor in dust bowl America. A different intent to Lebasque's. No joy or light here. But it is a moment in time. And food is notable by its absence. In fact that is part of the point of the photograph, whereas the food in Lebasque's painting is meant to show our connection to abundance in nature. The complete opposite to this photograph now that I think of it.

I do like Tea on the Terrace at Sainte-Maxime. It attracts at first glance, but repays a further examination.

"Remember that at any given moment there are a thousand things you can love." David Levithan

Coincidentally on the back of the painting is this - The pasture, sunset Eragny by Camille Pissarro. I think it is my favourite so far in my desk calendar although there are a few close runners up. Once again we have one of those frozen moments in everyday life. It glows in the sunlight. And there is the potential of food - assuming they are cows who will shortly be giving their milk that is. But not much human interaction. This man is alone - yet not alone as he communes with the natural world. Lebasque's painting does have some spiritual aspects to it - overt in the fruit and the cherub, but Pissarro's emanates spirituality and wonder even though it is just an everyday moment.

"We are travelers on a cosmic journey, stardust, swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity. Life is eternal. We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share. This is a precious moment. It is a little parenthesis in eternity." Paulo Coelho


My younger granddaughter painted this for her sister on her 14th birthday. She is eleven - twelve in just over a week's time.


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