Barthélemy Menn - Ländliche Szene am Genfersee, n.d.
Oil on wood
46.1 x 62.4 cm
Barthélemy Menn (1815-1893) attended the first drawing lessons with a veduta painter at the age of twelve. After an initial training in drawing in Geneva, he travelled to Paris in 1833 and entered the studio of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who was soon appointed director of the Académie de France in Rome. The young artist followed his teacher to Italy in 1835. There he produced many paintings outdoors and created numerous landscape studies.
After his return to Paris in 1838, he came into contact with members of the Barbizon school, including Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot. The intimate, unheroic view of landscape inspired Menn and he himself started plein air painting. During this time he got to know Chopin and Delacroix, who bought some paintings from him. However, the income was scarce and Menn, like many other Swiss artists, had to give up his life in Paris due to a lack of orders and return to Geneva in 1843. He applied to the position of director of the Geneva Ecole de Dessin, but even though he was able to submit a letter of recommendation from Ingres, his application was dismissed. He would have to wait another 7 years for this recognition and until then Menn made a living as a teacher. In this role he gave great importance to the fact that each student's own personality became visible. One of today’s best known students of Menn was Ferdinand Hodler: «Menn taught me in a certain way how to discover myself.»
Ländliche Szene am Genfersee shows a poetic play of light and shadow accompanied by a relaxed and positive aura. Two women lead a donkey, cows and sheep to the bank. An empty canoe floats on the calm lake. The dark clouds move out of the picture and the sky seems to brighten. Through such harmonious, de-dramatized scenes, characterized by a gestural style, Menn differs greatly from his contemporary competitors who used to construct heroic landscapes. The art historian Jura Brüschweiler writes: «He freed it [the subject] from the threatening eagles, nightmarish clouds, uprooted tree stumps and other elements with which the members of the opposing party filled their large paintings. Above all, however, he attempted to break with the prevailing idea of perfection […].»
French plein air painting was not appreciated in Geneva, and Barthélemy Menn had to deal with harsh, ignorant reactions from critics throughout his life, which even led to his denial and destruction of some of his own works. Finally, he retired from the public as an artist and only painted for private pleasure, namely what he wanted - landscapes in great outdoors. Today his works can certainly be seen as pioneers of classic modernism in Switzerland. The painter Eugène Carrière described Menn's last paintings as «poetry in space.»