Berque, Jean

Berque, Jean (1896-1954)

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Jean Berque was a French artist of note, sadly somewhat neglected in recent times, producing paintings and illustrative work from the 1920s through to his death in 1954. The art deco style of these times is often evident in his work. He became particularly productive as an illustrator for books, illustrating the works of distinguished writers, includng Collette, Pierre Louys, Pierre Ronsard, Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Shelley, but many more than this. In honour of his fine art work, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour in 1953.

Berque was born in Reims in 1896 to a family who were sympathetic to the arts. In 1916 he moved to Paris to enrol in the Académie Ranson where he was taught by the notable artists Félix Valloton, Maurice Denis and Paul Sérusier. His subsequent recruitment into the army was greatly shortened, presumably fortuitously, as he was released from service in 1917 for health reasons.

His first marriage was to Emmanuelle Raymonde Louise-Marie Thorel, who was the daughter of a judge. This was to end in divorce in 1943.

In 1922 he was a member of The Union of Decorative Arts in Reims. In 1923-24 the unique church of Saint-Nicaise was built in Reims by Jacques Marcel Aubertin, having been commissioned by the industrialist, Georges Charbonneaux. This was a period of resurgence in the production of religious art and in this church there is a marked Art Deco style. Gustave Jaulmes and Maurice Denis were entrusted with the fine art decorations and René Lalique created the windows. Amongst other artists involved, Jean Berque produced a Madonna and Child and in 1925, a series of Stations of the Cross. Berque had already travelled to Italy to absorb the essence there of religious art.

In early 1924, he was part of the first group exhibition at the Eugène Druet Gallery in Paris. He was in very good company along with Félix Valotton,Paul Sérusier, Aristide Maillol, Henri Labasque, and others. He continured to exhibit, painting landscapes and still lifes, but particularly gaining a reputation for his nudes. In 1927, he had the distinction of one of his nude images being banned from the Paris news-stands where it had graced the cover of the review ‘Crapouillot’. He showed at the Salon d’Automne between 1924-8, and the Tuileries 1927-34 and the Galerie Renaissance. On the purchase of one of Berque’s paintings for le musée du Luxembourg, the playwrite Henri-René Lenormand wrote: “…you will understand that Jean Berque is a complete artist, because the world of dreams and imagination is reflected in him in visions as compelling as that of living forms and everyday landscapes.” Perhaps there is some indication here of earlier influence from the Symbolists. Certainly Sérusier and Valloton had been teachers and became colleagues.

He was also now illustrating, and he was very active in the 1930s with illustrations for the publishers Philippe Gonin in Paris and for the Gonin Brothers in Lausanne.

In 1943, Berque re-married. His new wife was Germaine-Ninette Wilhelminia Kohn. Both he and his new wife were active members of the French resistance during the Second World War, with the remarkable and happy event of their son being born on the day victory was declared.

In 1942 he illustrated ‘Amours de Marie’ by Ronsard and continued illustrating. A particular work of note is his illustration to Collette’s ‘Wheat Grass’ in 1946. Collette was tremendously appreciative and grateful to him. He was also by no means averse to working for private press erotic publications. His drawings for the erotic works of Pierre Louys are significant in this, and we have available on this website a copy of ‘Trois filles de leur mère’ which includes a series of highly erotic illustrations for a private press published around 1945. Cick here to access –  Trois filles de leur mère by Pierre Louys, illustrated by Jean Berque .

Berque also designed adverts for Perrier and theatrical designs for la Comédie francaise.

He had received the Knight of the Legion of Honour in 1953 and died, quite suddenly, the next year whan he was in a book store in the rue de Seine in Paris.

William Rose for Talisman Fine Art (March 2020)