LA FRESNAYE Roger de
( 1885-1925). French painter, born in Le Mans; died in Grasse. He was the son of an aristocratic army officer. Descended from an old Norman family, Roger de la Fresnaye was reared in the best French tradition. His precocious childhood drawings show surprising precision, purity and directness. In 1905 he enrolled at the Académie Julian and followed the courses at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts until he was tired of the pettiness of the teaching there. He then entered the Académie Ranson, where Maurice Denis and Sérusier were teaching. These two artists taught that painting far from being a mere copy of reality, was an absolute and convincing ensemble of forms and colours, that art was the concrete image of the inner life, the fruit of intelligence and discipline, that it was consequently natural to modify Nature and to obtain a new reality by deliberate distortion. Such was the theory of the Nabis. Nothing could have better suited La Fresnaye's own inclinations. He submitted to the influence of Sérusier, Maurice Denis and Gauguin for several years. A mixture of irony and tenderness, of mannerism and austerity, even a certain literary quality, give his first canvases, particularly his Self-Portrait ( Museum of Modern Art, Paris), a definitely Nabist accent. Unlimited possibilities were soon revealed to La Fresnaye by Cézanne. The which he executed in 1910, was already more plastic than the works of the Nabis.
However, he took only the construction of forms from Cézanne: cubes, cones, cylinders, fitted together to give solidity and density to the objects. His palette was reduced to ochres, browns, muted blues and greens. More preoccupied with volume than with space, he sought above all for right proportions. In the landscapes he executed in 1911, at La Fertésous-Jouarre and Meulan, in Man Drinking and Singing ( 1910), Cuirassier ( 1911) and Joan of Arc ( 1912), those works in which, through Céezanne, La Fresnaye reached back to Géricault and Poussin, he succeeded in interpreting Nature by means of a strictly intellectual discipline. Energy under control, a direct and somewhat lofty tone, much nobility, despite a certain youthful sharpness -- these are the characteristics of La Fresnaye's painting at this time. As an admirer of Cézanne, he could not ignore Cubism, and from 1913 on La Fresnaye joined Braque in this movement. More intellectual than Braque, he saw Cubism only as a method; less baroque than Picasso, he sought a classical basis in Cubism. La Fresnaye soon tried to check the splitting-up of form and the multiplication of planes which were the consequences of analysis. Probably he was the first to introduce the synthesis lately extolled by Gauguin into the Cubist experiment, to eliminate details and fussiness of every kind. In this spirit he painted Seated Man ( 1913), The Conquest of the Air ( 1913), Married Life ( 1914), and the beautiful series of Still Lifes with Square-Rule, Diabolo, Bottle of Tupentine and Bottle of Port Wine. In each of these works line and colour are so closely bound together, so marvellously combined that the composition has not a single flaw. From then on La Fresnaye heightened his tones, brightened his reds and blues (he who had used such austere colouring during his Cézanne period) while the other Cubists were impoverishing their palettes. La Fresnaye made only a brief foray into Cubism before the First World War interrupted his work. He had never been very strong. But when war came, he enlisted, asked to be sent to the front, and distinguished himself there by his courage and self-effacement. When the troops were resting, he drew or painted water-colours. He came down with fever and was evacuated to a temporary hospital in Tours. Then began that doleful, restless sickbed life, which he bore without complaint, and in spite of which he continued his work. But his energy was sapped. In 1919, ill with tuberculosis, he settled in Grasse with his friend Gampert, a painter and engraver. La Fresnaye's health was ruined during his service in the army in the First World War and he never again had the physical energy for sustained work. In He executed several portraits of Gampert, drawings, water-colours and gouaches. Stoically, he watched his strength and genius decline. He died on November 27th, 1925.
By 1918 La Fresnaye had said everything he had to say. His work of the following seven years -- his last -- was not without its importance, but one must remember the conditions in which La Fresnaye was obliged to work. Confined to his sickbed, incapable of sustained physical or intellectual effort, cut off from all contact with Paris artists, even obliged to abandon oilpainting, La Fresnaye could put only meagre means at the service of his talent. The few paintings he was able to turn out were inevitably marked by these conditions, but his drawings retained the same qualities of purity, sharpness of insight, and that characteristic aristocratic distinction of his, with occasional touches of preciosity. On December 29th, 1924, he wrote to one of his correspondents: 'In thinking of the common difficulties we have known for twenty years, of all those I have gone through, and of a that I should wish to do if I were in good health, I cannot help sighing when I consider the time and energy lost through lack of a guide or authority'. An admirer of Cézanne, a satellite of Cubism, he put grace and sobriety, boldness and moderation into his compositions. But unfortunately he never let himself be content with a single god. He worshipped Gauguin, Géricault, Ingres, and the Florentines of the Quattrocento. With his complex nature and whimsical mind, he often achieved real style, but he did not always maintain it. Despite his adventurous spirit, he was really a classic, but today, whether because of his premature death or for some deeper reason, his work seems incoherent and incomplete.
One cannot help wondering where his talents would have led him after 1918 if his strength had remained unimpaired. 'The more I live,' he wrote, 'the more I believe that painting is not a question of intelligence; it is almost a physical discharge.' These are the bitter words of a sick man who cannot develop his capabilities and is aware of his plight. His masterpieces such as Portrait of Guynemer and The Countryside at Hauteville show that he possessed the artistic resources of a great painter. But for the onset of his illness he would no doubt have forged a coherent and original style of his own, and ceased to be an inspired eclectic. His final works include a number of selfportraits.