Early days and training
Émile Friant was born in Dieuze on April 16, 1863. His father, Virgile, was a foreman at the local salt manufacture. His mother, Catherine Torlotin, was a maid, notably working for the Parisots, who without a child of their own, almost considered Émile as their own son. In 1870, after the annexation of the Moselle region by Prussia, the Friant family moved to Nancy together with Mrs. Parisot, now a widow.
Very early on, Émile developed a talent for drawing. He began his training at the Nancy school of drawing under the aegis of Théodore Devilly, who encouraged him to work from nature. Aware of Friant’s talents, Devilly obtained a scholarship from the city of Nancy to facilitate Friant’s admission to Cabanel’s studio at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In Paris, Friant visited the museums and art galleries. He was drawn to Gêrome and Meissonier for their attention to detail, and to Bastien-Lepage for his attachment to nature. From now on, Friant would share his time between Nancy and Paris and exhibit at the Salons in both towns. Following Aimé Morot’s advice, he showed in 1882 L’enfant prodigue (the musée Lorrain in Nancy owns a study). Awarded an honorable mention, the picture was acquired by the French government and sent to the Roubaix museum (the painting has since been destroyed).
In 1883, Friant obtained the Second Rome Prize for Œdipe maudissant son fils Polynice, ranking behind André-Marcel Baschet (1862-1941). His subsequent attempts in 1884 and 1885 also failed in awarding him the top prize.
Travels and first successes
In 1886, Friant’s first successes at the Salon allowed him to win a scholarship for travel to Belgium and Holland in the Winter of that year. In the Spring 1887, he left for Italy and then Tunisia, where he would return several years later. Friant shared his travel memories in several letters to his friend and antique dealer, Auguste Blain.
Following the Salon of 1889, Friant obtained another travel scholarship which allowed him to return to North Africa in 1890 (he would go there a third time in 1892, after a stop in Spain). The second trip to the Maghreb region is known through several articles written by his friend and travel companion to Algeria, the painter Raoul de Dombasle. These articles were published that same year in the journal La Lorraine Artiste. From his expeditions, Friant returned with landscape paintings he made on site, as well as a few beautiful portraits (both drawn and painted).
Friant’s foray into portraiture started when he was 14 with his first self-portraits. This genre, which helped him achieve early notoriety, remained a central focus throughout his career.
At the Nancy drawing school, Friant developed close ties with young artists, who would eventually become models for his drawings and paintings. They included the painters and artists-decorators, Camille Martin and Vistor Prouvé and sculptors, Ernest Bussière and Mathias Schiff. Friant also painted a few prominent figures in the Nancy artistic community, such as the glass and decorative artist Émile Gallé, painter Louis Guingot and bookbinder René Wiener.
Friant made portraiture his specialty. In addition to portraits of his friends from Nancy, he also painted his Parisian acquaintances, including members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts or actors like Constant, Ernest and Jean Coquelin, whom Friant extensively depicted, wearing their stage outfit or in their own homes. He also admired and painted the Impressionist artist from Loraine, Charles de Meixmoron de Dombasle, who would later become Friant’s first biographer.
Friant was granted another special prize at the 1889 Salon for his large painting La Toussaint. Acquired by the French State for the musée du Luxembourg, the painting has been in the collection of the musée des Beaux-Arts of Nancy since Friant’s death in 1932.
Like a snapshot, the painting depicts the entrance to the Préville cemetery in Nancy on All Saint’s Day. Although most likely painted in Friant’s studio from photographs, the visitors’ faces are hyper-realistic and stand out from the frieze of blacks created by their mourning attire.
La Toussaint, which reached critical acclaim upon its first exhibition, became a popular image through its reproduction in Phototypy and Chromotypy, as well as through the postcards distributed by the musée du Luxembourg. That same year, Friant received a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle and the Legion of Honor. Thanks to his dealer Goupil’s business relationship with the New York dealer Knoedler, Friant achieved international fame.
During the 1890s, Friant painted several of his most significant works, including Les Souvenirs (Paris, Petit Palais), Ombres portées (Paris, musée d’Orsay), La discussion politique (private collection), Premier assaut (private collection), Le Pain (Toul, musée municipal), Le repas frugal (private collection), Chagrin d’enfant (Pittsburgh, The Frick Collection), La douleur (Nancy, musée des Beaux-Arts). Friant also often depicted his life partner Eugénie Ledergerber and her family.
In 1895, Friant received his first State commission: the city of Nancy commissioned him to paint decorative panels representing the theme of Les jours heureux for its City Hall (now in the collection of the musée des Beaux-Arts of Nancy). In 1900, Friant obtained another gold medal at the Exposition Universelle.
More honors followed. The State commissioned Friant and his fellow artists Victor Prouvé and Marcel Jambon to decorate the ceiling of the ballroom of the Prefecture of Meurthe-et-Moselle under the theme of Lorraine protectrice des arts et des sciences. In 1906, replacing Luc-Olivier Merson, he became professor at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, a post he would keep until his death in 1932.
He shared his life between Paris and Nancy, a city that remained dear to him and where he kept a house and a studio Quai Ligier Richier. After 1900, he developed a strong interest in engraving, an art he discovered in 1883, probably with his friends Victor Prouvé, Georges Jeanniot and Eugène Decisy. He produced many engravings which show his talent as a meticulous draughtsman.
The last years
During the First World War, Friant was too old to enroll in the army but instead joined the national effort by drawing posters and defense bonds.
Starting in the 1890s, he became interested in aerostation and developed technological inventions for pilots. Some of his drawn prototypes were bequeathed to the musée des Beaux-Arts of Nancy upon his death.
Sometimes laughed at for his style “pompier” Friant humorously partook in the 1912 exhibition initiated by Luc-Olivier Merson for the Galerie Petit in Paris called Les Pompiers. In one of his drawings, he made a caricature of himself in his academician outfit pushing away the demons of Cubism and Fauvism.
At that time, he also created a large decorative panel called En pleine nature. Exhibited at the 1924 Salon, this painting is now at the Georges de La Tour museum in Vic-sur-Seille. The numerous studies and photographs that have survived provide precious insight into Friant’s artistic process and his interest in photography.
Also in 1924, Friant entered the Académie des Beaux-Arts. His friends from Nancy organized a banquet in his honor to celebrate. Victor Prouvé congratulated him in these terms: “… You are an unparalleled example of commitment to artistic life. It is like the most perfect straight line the chisel can trace in the hardest matter… it is head on that you succeeded in everything you tackled. It is magnificent. What is even more extraordinary is that what you tried to achieve in your work is what you achieved in the prizes you coveted; because you wanted everything, and you got everything! Each award you considered the utmost honor naturally came when you wanted it. At 18, your star was already shinning upon you. Didn’t you use to tell us: “at 27, I will win an award”. You won an award by the age of 26. You have climbed the ladder with your determination, your hard work and talent, without drama … One day you also told us “I will die a member of the Institut.” It is done. You are not dead fortunately. By the way, doesn’t belonging to the Institut guarantee immortality”?
Friant died in Paris in 1932. He is buried in his adopted city of Nancy, in the cemetery of Préville that served as a décor for his most famous painting: La Toussaint.
Translated from French to English by Ms Agnès Penot