In 2011 a collection of French naturalists was selected and displayed at The Fleming gallery. The collection of paintings and drawings brings together the works of French landscape painters from the first half of the 20th century.
These naturalist artists made their debut and are distinguished by their engagement and dialogue with nature. They continued the principles and techniques of Impressionism – plein-air painting focused on the beauty and harmony of nature – whilst still aware of contemporary art movements.
“Nature is my master, taste is my guide,” said Gaston Balande (1880-1971), the best-known artist in the collection expresses the principle which runs through all the work. Balande’s career and artistic development are representative of that and of the other naturalist painters of this period. By the 1930s, he reached the apex of his mature style and was recognized through public commissions including mural paintings on the transatlantic liner Normandie. One of the masterpieces of the interwar era, shown in the exhibition, is the Balande painting “Camping” (1934), which can be considered as a testimony to Balande’s love of nature. These painters actively sought out nature, in a bid to capture the landscapes, still life’s and even urban scenes as industrialisation continued to encroach. The “French Naturalists” idea was developed by George who wanted to group and name these artists who specialised in landscape painting and came back to a more figurative way of representing nature.
The collection has a strong identity that has been built over time. Based on the unifying theme of nature, fully in tune with current events since ecology has been at the heart of minds, the collection proves its coherence and the durability and solidity of the artistic choices made by George Whyte from its beginning almost 50 years ago. It is therefore a visionary collection whose spirit of adventure must be saluted because it was started in the 1970s, at a time when pre-war painting was generally out of fashion (with the exception of Impressionists and Avant-Garde). This observation is even clearer with regard to landscape painting in particular.
One is entitled to wonder about the relative oblivion which struck these “French Naturalist Painters” until recent times. The main reasons for this are first the crisis in landscape painting after Impressionism. How to paint nature after such an important change in style? The answer was largely that of abstract art which erased all figurative temptation of the landscape. Then one need to consider the absence of critical work: art historians, as much as art market factors, focused so far on the Avant-Garde, thus leaving aside whole sides of national artistic production.
But this situation is started changing little by little. For the past ten years, we have witnessed the spotlight of painters on the fringes of the 20th century Avant-Gardes. This rediscovery is logical and natural in link to the world we live in. It has already started through exhibitions in galleries or in museums that could rehabilitate a number of artists who were little known until recently, like Bernard Boutet de Monvel, today famous for his views of New York which magnify the art deco architecture of the 1930s. The “French Naturalist Painters” are fully in line with this drive to rediscover pre-war painters.
However not all artists of the collection can be included in this group. Le Marcis, Parra or Georges-Michel are isolated from them as they worked in a dierent way.