Georges Bretegnier

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Biography of Georges Bretegnier ( 1860-1892 )

Following the footsteps of Jean-Léon Gérôme and Meissonier, Georges Bretegnier's work is characterized by its delicacy and quasi-photographic facture. Deeply marked by the light of the South, which he discovered during numerous stays in the East, the artist's work has imposed itself in the artistic landscape of his time. Seduced by this region of the world, the travelling painter chose to leave for North Africa, in quest of new subjects.

Born in Haute-Saône in 1806, Georges Bretegnier was raised in a family of artists. It was through the contact with his father, a draughtsman, that the young man cultivated many observation qualities and exercised his eye. Developing an obvious artistic sensibility, he showed, very early on, great plastic predispositions and proved to be particularly talented for his age. Indeed, at the age of only 18, Georges Bretegnier won first prize for drawing in the general competition, intended to reward the best pupils in the first and second year of secondary school. Quickly entering the competition of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he was admitted to the studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme, a French painter and sculptor, composing orientalist, mythological, historical and religious scenes. He was also taught by Ernest Meissonier, a painter and sculptor who was part of the historical realism movement - which appeared in the plastic arts during the Second Empire. The latter specialized in painting of military history and genre scenes. From his masters, Bretegnier inherited the smooth and delicate touch, so characteristic of his work, as well as his management of colours.

For the first time, in 1882, the artist exhibited at the Salon. He presented a historical painting: Henry II of England making amends to the tomb of Thomas Beckett.

Following in the wake of the painters of his time, Georges Bretegnier left to discover the light of the South. In 1884, he began his journey in Tangier and Fez, Morocco, then ventured to Algeria, as part of a mission led by the Minister Plenipotentiary Laurent-Charles Féraud, a French diplomat and Arabist involved as an interpreter in the military colonisation of Algeria. It should be noted that since the opening of the Suez Canal inaugurated in 1869 in Egypt - linking the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea - cultural and diplomatic exchanges have multiplied between Europe and the Arab world: the development of trade routes, roads, railways, as well as maritime links greatly favours exchanges. In this context, a large number of artists have participated in these missions organized by the state, in charge of documenting their travels. 

Deeply marked by his first voyage, Bretegnier chose to make a grand tour of the Orient from 1887 to 1888, lasting 16 months. Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco... The young painter travelled through cities such as Tangier, Rabat and Tetouan. There he depicted relief and local life and multiplied sketches and photographs, immortalizing street scenes, landscapes and monuments, and then putting them to bed on his canvases in the heart of his Parisian studio.  

In the course of his travels, the artist's palette changes. He develops a real passion for the play of light and shadow. His colours become warmer, more vivid and his touch becomes more refined.

During his stays in North Africa, the artist became friends with Louis-Auguste Girardot, a French orientalist painter and lithographer - also a pupil of Jean-Léon Gérôme. In addition, he frequents Jules-Alexis Muenier, a painter and photographer who favours naturalist subjects. His orientalist work presents street scenes painted in the city of Biskra, tight and full-length portraits made in Marrakech, Morocco, figurations of architectural settings, odalisques, warriors or prayer scenes.

This oil on canvas, made by Georges Bretegnier in 1892, is entitled La prière.  It shows a group of believers praying in a mosque, facing the mihrab - indicating the direction of Mecca. One of them, dressed in an apple-green garment, stands out from the group in the foreground. He is an Imam, leading and guiding men in prayer. The rest of the worshippers are treated in a monochrome of beige, orange, and pink colors. Through this composition, the artist chooses to resituate a scene of worship, bathed in a bright and intense light.

However, we should note that figurations of religious practice in 19th century painting are rare. Indeed, we can notice that the number of prayer scenes at the heart of Orientalist subjects remains very limited. Is this due to a lack of interest in the Muslim faith, or only an expression of rejection of this religion ? It is in fact a very different reason : the accessibility to places of worship was probably reduced for Westerners. Many are those who testify to their difficulties in penetrating these places dedicated to prayer. Artists such as Fromentin, armed with their easels and palettes, expose in their writings their inability to access mosques or attend scenes of worship. As a result, foreigners faced strong resistance from the local population to being depicted; and far beyond the prescriptions of Islam, artists also faced a categorical refusal to be depicted for fear of being disfigured or caricatured. 

This is all the more noticeable in the religious field. Difficulties in working in mosques have resulted in the virtual absence of representations of scenes of worship. 

Indeed, many stereotypical portraits, presenting the local population with very marked physical characteristics, tend towards caricature. Tired of being reduced to "objects of study", these men and women fled the artists, refused to pose, and excluded them from their places of worship. We cannot state with certainty that Georges Bretegnier probably witnessed this prayer scene, however, the artist, unlike painters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme, did not insert any anachronistic elements into his work. It is true that sometimes, some artists chose to depict scenes of worship that they had not attended. We can mention the example of Gérôme, who, in his painting entitled Prayer in the Home of an Arnaut Chief, did not correctly orient the prayer mats.

Through this painting, we perceive the artist's strong will to portray the fervour of the prayers.

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