Leon Lhermitte was born in 1844 and was still executing works in the French rural tradition at his death in 1925, making him the last in an illustrious group of artists dedicated to this genre. He showed artistic talent at a young age and in 1863 left his home at Mont-Saint-Pere, Aisne for the Petite Ecole in Paris where he studied with Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran. Lecoq was known for his program of training the visual memory of his students, and his theories had a profound effect on Lhermitte.
It was in his studio that Lhermitte formed a life-long friendship with Cazin and also became acquainted with Legros, Fantin-Latour and Rodin. Lhermitte sent his initial entry to the Salon in 1864 when he was nineteen, and continued to exhibit charcoal drawings and paintings regularly, and pastels after 1885, winning his first medal in 1874 with La Moisson (Musee de Carcassonne).
Lhermitte was a well-known painter of peasant life, and Van Gogh - who also wanted to pursue this genre - was one of his greatest admirers. He wrote of him as a painter who “knows the sturdy, stern figure of the working man through and through, and [who] draws his subjects from the very heart of the people.” Reproductions of Lhermitte’s paintings helped Van Gogh during the creation of The Potato Eaters, a work also prepared in numerous studies.
Vincent praised Lhermitte in a letter to Theo, comparing his treatment of light to that of Rembrandt. Van Gough believed that his conscientious efforts to observe his models at close hand, in “real” contexts, entitled him to interpret what he saw in the manner he deemed appropriate. Indeed, he argued that such modifications as he made contributed to the “truth” of his renderings:
“For me, Millet and Lhermitte are the real artists for the real reason that they do not paint things as they are, traced in a dry, analytical way, but as they –Millet, Lhermitte—feel them….My great longing is to learn to make those….remodelings, so that they may becomes, yes, lies if you like—but truer than the literal truth. He (Lhermitte) is the absolute master of the figure, he does what he likes with it-proceeding neither from the color nor the local tone but rather from the light-as Rembrandt did-there is an astonishing mastery in everything he does, above all excelling in modeling, he perfectly satisfies all that honesty demands.”
The Haymakers was awarded the grand prix at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. It was bought by the Van Gogh Museum in 1991. Other prizes and honors came to Lhermitte throughout his long career, including the Grand Prix at the Exhibition Universelle, 1889, the Diplome d’honneur, Dresden, 1890, and the Legion of Honor. He was a founding member of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
Lhermitte must be considered an artist who bravely met challenges and used the innovations of his period to further his own vision of the heroic and noble beauty of rural life. When combined with his latent romantic sensitivities for the desolate northern coast or with his picturesque studies of the waterways of France, Lhermitte’s work becomes a unified blending of the traditional and the academic, the highly innovative and the personal. He remains an artist dedicated to his craft and to promoting a serene and calm view of rustic life, especially when that way of life was actually no more than a childhood dream or a remembrance of bygone times recalled in tranquility.
Museum collections include: