Les peintres, ces grands bavards, s’en vont, leur journée terminée, au café ou ils recontrent d’autres peintres. Et ce sont les interminables et charmante discussions que l’on sait, et que personne, hélas! ne pense à dérober au vent.
[At the end of the working day, painters, those great talkers, go to cafes where they meet other painters. These are the endless, delightful conversations familiar to all, that no one – alas – ever brings out into the open.]
– André Lhote, La peinture libérée (1956)
Jocelyn Herbert left school at 15 – her mother didn’t approve of exams for girls. She was sent to stay with a family in Neuilly-sur-Seine to learn French and the piano. ‘We learnt French morning, noon and night… Madame took us to galleries, theatre and opera – everything you should see in Paris’. At this time, she first saw a performance by La Compagnie des Quinze, directed by Michel Saint-Denis.It was a ‘revelation’: ‘serious theatre of a kind one had never seen before … very alive … I remember being very impressed’.
Herbert later found a room in a pension near the Sorbonne, and discovered the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, founded in 1904, where ‘you could draw in the evenings for practically nothing’. (The school still exists.) There was a life model, but no formal teaching. She made friends with some of the other students and one of them said, ‘Why don’t you come to André Lhote and start painting?’
Lhote, a Cubist painter, opened his studio on rue d’Odessa in 1922. His students over the following decades included Tamara de Lempicka, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Serge Gainsbourg. The school offered an alternative to the official education of the Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux Arts.
Herbert remembered the studio as ‘a tiny place’, with about 10 students. Lhote would come in once a week to make remarks on the students’ work: ‘He was a very nice man, quite funny’. Herbert spent most of her allowance on paint, but couldn’t afford canvas, and so she painted on brown paper. Lhote, who had also started out painting on card for lack of money, joked: ‘You English, you all paint in such grey colours!’
The painter Aurélie Nemours, ten years younger than Herbert, recalled the routine of the studio in an interview. Lhote would set up the model’s pose on Monday morning and stay to make a few sketches of his own. The 20 or so students worked alone in the mornings for the rest of the week. On Friday, Lhote would return. Taking the place of each student in turn, he sought to understand the difficulties they grappled with from their viewpoint: ‘Il se mettait à la place de chacun… prendre la place de l’élève’. He never gave general notes to the whole class, but everyone would stop and listen because they all benefitted from the comments.
Sometimes he would take a book of reproductions from his satchel and say, looking at the work of a student, ‘You are a painter from the school of Ravenna – don’t lose yourself in Chardin: why are you doing Chardin in this passage?’ supporting his comments by comparing the student’s work with a reproduction of the appropriate work. It was like a history of art written from the viewpoint of the painter rather than the historian, Nemours commented.
(from ‘L’atelier d’André Lhote: entretien avec Aurelie Némours’ by Serge Lemoine in André Lhote: 1895-1962, edited by Hélène Moulin, Lyon: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2003, pp. 112-117.)
Lhote said of himself that he was a painter who wrote. While other painters received guests at the end of the working day, he wrote: letters, books, and articles on art for the Nouvelle Revue Française. The letters between Lhote and Jacques Rivière are full of literary references and express as much excitement about seeing Isadora Duncan dance for the first time as about the new paintings by Georges Rouault. For both Lhote and Herbert, the image and the word are in ‘endless, delightful conversation’.
Quotations from Jocelyn Herbert are taken from the interviews conducted by Cathy Courtney in 1999 (British Library, National Sound Archives F5578).