Monday, February 11, 2013

Those Crazy Bohemians (Unsung hero: Pére Tanguy)

If I asked  a large number of people to raise their hands if they knew what Impressionism was, I'm willing to wager that a fair number of them would do so. A decent amount would still keep their hands up if I asked how many could name at least one Impressionist by last name.

But if I asked how many could keep their hands raised by naming the man who made it possible for many of these great artists to keep painting, I am pretty darn sure that almost all of the hands would go down. Unsung heroes tend to become an "unknown" very quickly. Which probably is why they're called unsung, right?

Portrait of Pére Tanguy by Vincent van Gogh

Julien Tanguy was one such hero. He was so important to these bohemian painters that they even nicknamed him "Pére" Tanguy (pére meaning father). He owned an art supply shop in Montmartre, and was looked up to as a true rebel with a cause: he had spent some time in prison for his political beliefs. This, of course, endeared him to the free-thinking bohemian artists.

He had opened his art supply store in 1870. Pére was heavily involved in the Paris Commune that ruled Paris for two short months in 1871.  During La Semaine Sanglante (The Bloody Week) estimates vary from 6,000 to 50,000 as to the number of men, women, and children killed when the government troops stepped in and forced the Paris Commune out of power. Pére avoided execution and somehow was not kept forever in jail, but he made sure he stayed in the more rural, bohemian area of Montmartre as a precaution.

Besides, that is where all the excitement was happening in the art world. Pére also began to show Van Gogh's paintings (but never sold one). Soon he also had many works by Monet, Sisley, Gauguin, Seurat and Cézanne. As prized as a Cézanne painting would become later, he was very much considered a "painter's painter" and didn't sell well during his lifetime, either. In fact, from 1877 to 1893 the only place where one would find a Cézanne in the whole city was in Tanguy's art supply store.

So, why was he so important to these bohemian artists of nineteenth century? Well, ignore the fact that he showed their work and tried to build an audience for them and consider this: most of those artists were dirt poor. Many days they didn't eat. That also means they had no money for canvas and paint. Without canvas and paint, the paintings that we now prize from that era would have never been created.

They certainly were created, though, thanks to "Pére Tanguy. You see, Pére let them buy paint and canvas on credit. No, he didn't change them interest or high prices. He simply gave them what they needed with only a verbal promise to pay him whenever they could. He had to have known full well that many of those supplies would never be paid for, yet he continued to honor the artist's verbal agreements.

One could call him a fool. I'm betting his wife often did. It isn't hard to see why some would call him that. It isn't a very smart way to run a business, and Pére was not wealthy. He wasn't even close to middle-class. What he was, though, was a believer in the talent of outrageously new thinking artists, who had the nerve to show people the world in brand new ways. When you consider that, it isn't hard to see why an anarchist would have a tender spot for these crazy bohemian painters who always promised, seldom paid, but always hoped to.

Promise and hope. Without it, the world is a much colder place. With it, great things can happen. The art world saw painting change forever in great ways - thanks to an unsung hero. "Pére"? Oh, oui, indeed he was like their father. They didn't disappoint. His "children" did him proud.

Portrait of Pére Tanguy by Vincent van Gogh