Léon Augustin Lhermitte was the son of a school teacher. He painted from a very early age and settled in Paris in 1863, enrolling in the École Impériale de Dessin. His teacher was Lecocq de Boisboudran. In the early days of his career he earned a living doing illustrations for boxes of sweets and the catalogues of the cabinet-makers of the Faubourg St-Antoine, as well as publishing houses. In 1879 he went to Great Britain, to which he returned frequently. The same year he met the art dealer Paul Durant-Ruel who exhibited his works. He was one of the founders of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, of which he became vice-president.
Lhermitte initially produced charcoal drawings which revealed his deep feeling for nature. His first attempt, Banks of the Marne near Alfort, caused a sensation. Following this he executed canvases, showing himself to be a fine landscape artist and a skilful draughtsman. He painted scenes from rural life almost exclusively and benefited from exceptional interest generated by the prizes awarded to the works of J. F. Millet. But although he was very much affected by the work of the painter of Angelus, he himself sought only the pictorial element and not a synthetic translation. Many other French masters of the period share his completely objective vision, for example Bastien Lepage, Roll, J. C. Cazin and Rafaelli. Like them, he put into practice very early on the technique of 'clear painting' made fashionable by the pursuit of Impressionism. But this group of artists borrowed from this method only those elements which appealed to public taste, and ignored chromatic elements. Lhermitte also paid the price for the easy success of those early days. His peasants, which found general favour with the public at the time, nowadays seem rather feeble alongside Camille Pissarro's renderings of the same subject.
However, in order to pass judgement on an artist such as Lhermitte, it is necessary to understand the era in which he worked, the era in which Realism was the only acceptable approach. It was in the atmosphere of the 'Théâtre Libre' of Antoine and the novels of Maupassant, Zola and their imitators that this type of art developed. In this context, Lhermitte is recognised as having painted the life of the peasants with great powers of objective observation and great insight into types and physiognomies. Nothing escaped his implacable eye and his bold and vigorous hand was guided by a lucid mind. The simplest elements of nature take on an air of true grandeur in his painting, despite their romantic and sentimental aspects. He is highly regarded both in France and in other countries by art lovers who look for nothing more than an attractive subject expertly painted. Among his most noteworthy works, outside those in museums, are: Les Halles, Washing the Sheep, Haymaking Time, and his large decorative panel for the Sorbonne, Claude Bernard. He illustrated A. Thieuret's Rural Life (La Vie Rustique).
He made his debut in 1864 in Paris at the Salon des Artistes Français. He subsequently took part in numerous collective exhibitions, notably the Exposition Universelle of 1900, in which he showed seven paintings, three pastels and four drawings. His early works gained him a third-place medal in 1874, a second-place medal in 1880, and the Grand Prix at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. He received a diploma of honour in Dresden in 1890 and was decorated with the Légion d'Honneur in 1884, promoted to Officier in 1884 and to Commandeur in 1911. He was elected to the Institut de France in 1905.
Museum and Gallery Holdings
Albany (Institute of History and Art): Landscape
Amiens: Death and the Woodcutter
Boston (MFA): Soul of the Humble
Buffalo (Albright-Knox AG): Haymaking Time
Château-Thierry (Mus. Jean-de-La-Fontaine): View of Château-Thierry
Chicago (AI): Sheafing the Hay
Florence (Uffizi): Portrait of the Artist
Montreal (Learmont): Ruins of Château-Thierry
Moscow (State Tretyakov Gal.): Le Tréport; Small Courtyard in Normandy
New York (Metropolitan Mus. of Art): Grape Harvest (1884); Soul of the Humble (1905)
Paris (MAM): Jazz Quartet
Paris (Mus. d'Orsay): Harvesters' Wages
Paris (Mus. du Petit Palais): Les Halles
Rheims: Wine Press
St Louis (Washington University): Harvest (1883, oil on canvas); Haymaking Time (1891, oils on canvas, two paintings)
St-Quentin: Pardon of Ploumanac'h
Washington DC (Corcoran Gal. of Art): Family of Harvesters