Barthélemy Menn (20 May 1815 – 10 October 1893) was a Swiss painter and draughtsman who introduced the principles of plein-air painting and the paysage intime into Swiss art.
Menn was born in Geneva as the youngest son of four to Not (Rhaeto-Romance language form for Louis) Menn, a confectioner from Scuol in the canton of Grisons, and Charlotte-Madeleine-Marguerite Bodmer, the daughter of a wealthy farmer from Coinsins in the Canton de Vaud. Already at the age of twelve, Menn took drawing lessons from the little-known Jean Duboi (1789–1849), and later, he entered the drawing school of the Geneva Arts Society. The repeated claim that he was also a pupil of the famous enameller Abraham Constantin (1785–1855) appears to be erroneous. In 1831, Menn was second in the annual drawing competition of the Geneva Art Society. The following year, he entered the studio of the Swiss history painter Jean-Léonard Lugardon (1801–1884), who was a pupil of Baron Gros(1771–1835) and acquainted with Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867). There, Menn was educated in figure drawing and composition before heading for Paris, where, in fall 1833, he entered the studio of Ingres. He was, therefore, no beginner when meeting the master, but needed some polishing and refinement in his art. In a letter to his friend Jules Hébert, Menn reported on the new situation: ‘Everybody, even the eldest in the studio tremble before Mr. Ingres. One fears him a lot in such a way that his corrections have a great impact. He is of an extreme sensibility,’ while the education in Ingres’ studio has been described by Théophile Silvestre, as follows: 'The students spend half of their time studying nature and half studying the masters among which they are especially attached to Phidias, the bas-reliefs of the Parthenon, classical sculpture in general.’ This explains why among Menn's early works there are many copies after the Parthenon frieze that was accessible in Paris in a set of plaster casts at the École des Beaux-Arts since 1816. (Fig. 2). Menn also copied several works by Raffael, Titian (Fig. 3), Veronese and Rubens in the Louvre, and works by Ingres.
When the latter decided to give up his studio to take the post as director of the French Academy in the Villa Medici in Rome, Menn returned to his grandparents in Coinsins before following his master in fall 1834. His journey led him first via Milan to Venice, where he met briefly his compatriot Louis-Léopold Robert (1798–1835), and where he would copy works by Titian and Tintoretto. He then travelled via Padua and Bologna to Florence, where he met old classmates from Ingres’ studio, and arrived finally in Rome in spring 1835. There, Menn copied works by Raphael and Michelangelo, but he also started to produce extraordinary fresh small landscape paintings in the open air. In summer 1836, he visited the Campagna, Capri and Naples, where too he drew and painted landscapes directly from nature, and copied classical antiquities from Pompeii as well as Giovanni Bellini's Transfiguration in the Museo Borbonico. When back in Rome, he produced history - and genre paintings, of which in 1837, he sent 'Solomon presented to Wisdom by his Parents' (Salomon présenté à la sagesse par son père et sa mère; Fig.N) to the annual Salon in Geneva. Menn returned via Florence, Siena and Viterbo to Paris in late 1838, where he exhibited at the Salon from 1839 to 1843, and where he became the drawing master of Maurice Dudevant, the son of George Sand. In her circle, he became acquainted with Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) who wanted to employ him as an assistant while working on the decoration of the cupola of the library in the Palais du Luxembourg. At the same time, Menn got to know the painters of the Barbizon School, and especially Charles Daubigny (1817–1878). Most importantly, however, Menn became friends with Camille Corot (1796–1875), who, from 1842 onwards, visited Switzerland frequently. It was also in Paris that he became acquainted with members of the Genevan Bovy family who followed the utopian socialist ideas of Charles Fourier.
Due to lack of commissions, Menn returned to Geneva, where, in 1844, he applied in vain for a teaching position at the local art school. In the following year, he exhibited a large alpine landscape, "Wetterhorn from Hasliberg", which caused a minor scandal as it did not meet the public's and critics’ expectations of smooth, highly finished, heroic alpine views. This incident did not help much in getting him a public job as professor of painting or drawing. Hence, he started to accept private pupils in his studio. In these years, Menn also experimented together with Jules Darier, another of Corot's friends in Geneva, in producing daguerreotypes, though none of them have been traced by now. He also travelled again extensively, this time along the Rhone Valley and to the South of France. It was in these years that he turned completely to the paysage intime and achieved similar solutions to Corot without attaining the latter's impressive achievements. In 1850, Menn was appointed director of the Geneva art school and from then on was teaching figure drawing – not landscape – for 42 years. In this position, he trained two generations of Swiss painters, among them Eugène Burnand, Pierre Pignolat, Edouard Vallet and Ferdinand Hodler, who reputedly said: ‘It is to him [Menn] that I owe everything’. Menn made a second voyage to Rome in 1852, and subsequently, decorated together with Corot, Henry Baron (1816–1885), Armand Leleux (1818–1885) and François-Louis Français (1814–1897) the large salon in the castle of Gruyère that then belonged to the Bovy-family. Menn also organized three exhibitions with contemporary French painting in Geneva in 1857, 1859 and 1861 that showed works by Corot, Courbet, Daubigny and Delacroix. Yet, the critics in Calvin's hometown were harsh and hostile towards contemporary art, which annoyed Menn so much as that he resolved never to exhibit in public again. He became even reluctant to sell his works privately and finally destroyed many of his paintings in the 1880s. In 1865, at the age of fifty, Menn married the widow of his cousin Jean Bodmer, Louise Bodmer-Gauthier (1818–1887), who brought with her a beautiful estate at Coinsins. It is here that Menn found peace and painted most of his last landscapes.
Although Menn was trained as a history painter and had, during his last forty years, only taught figure drawing, it was he who challenged the Swiss academic landscape tradition as early as 1845. At the time, internationally successful Alexandre Calame and the somewhat older François Diday dominated Swiss alpine painting with romantic, wild and fantastic mountain sceneries that have carefully composed foregrounds against which distant but highlighted mountain peaks are set under a pleasantly blue sky – or in a frightening storm. Menn, however, when exhibiting his Wetterhorn from Hasliberg at the annual art exhibition in Geneva, had not only ventured into the highly protected domain of his competitor Calame, but had done so by applying the principles of plein-air-painting to an alpine landscape. The ‘photographic’ view point, the structure of the rock formations and the handling of light and colour make this picture the earliest modern landscape in Swiss art history. As the painting did not go down well with the critics, Menn turned to more modest landscapes that he painted outdoors, and with which he introduced the principles of the modern French paysage-intime into Switzerland. ‘In a bush I see everything’, Menn used to say, capturing in his self-contained landscapes atmospheric changes of evening and morning hours, quiet harmonies of an unspoilt riverbank, a swampy plain or of an orchard in midday, casting them in sensitive tonal values and poetic tenderness. His approach derived entirely from contemporary French landscape painting, in particular from his friend Corot whom Menn called the ‘master of the right values’. It was these new values combined with his quest for natural beauty that Menn would promote as a teacher to generations of Swiss artists.
Barthélemy Menn is buried at the Cimetière des Rois in Geneva.
- Tripier Le Franc, Histoire de la vie et de la mort du Baron Gros, 2 vols., Paris: Jules Martin, 1880, vol. 2, p. 589. Lugardon was not, as has been repeatedly claimed, a pupil of Ingres, but he knew him from his Italian journey where they met in Florence in 1824
- ‘Tout le monde, jusqu’aux plus anciens de l'atelier, tremble devant M. Ingres. On le craint beaucoup, en sorte que ses corrections font beaucoup effet. Il est d'une sensibilité extrème.’ From a letter to Jules Hébert of 2 December 1833, quoted in: Jura Brüschweiler, Barthélemy Menn 1815–1893. Etude critique et biographique, Zurich: Swiss Institute for Art Research, 1960, p. 17.
- ‘Les élèves partageront leur temps entre l'étude de la nature et celle des maîres, s’attachant spécialement à Phidias, aux bas-reliefs du Parthénon, à la sculpture antique en générale.’ Quoted in Théophile Silvestre, Histoire des artistes vivants- Etudes d'après nature – Ingres, Paris: E. Blanchard 1855, p. 16.
- Marc Fehlmann, ‘Casts & Connoisseurs. The early Reception of the Elgin Marbles’, in: Apollo, Vol. 165, No. 554, June 2007, pp. 44–51.
- On Menn's copies see Marc Fehlmann and Marie Therese Bätschmann, ‘Menn copiste’, in Genava, No. LVI, 2008, pp. 49–81.
- ‘C’est à lui que je vaut tous’, quoted in Jura Brüschweiler, Barthélemy Menn 1815–1893: Étude critique et biographique, Zurich: Swiss Institute for Art Research, 1960, p. 57.
- "Dans un buisson, je vois tous", quoted in Jura Brüschweiler, Barthélemy Menn 1815–1893. Etude critique et biographique, Zurich: Swiss Institute for Art Research, 1960, p. 39.
- "le maître des valeurs justes", quoted in Jura Brüschweiler, Barthélemy Menn 1815–1893. Etude critique et biographique, Zurich: Swiss Institute for Art Research, 1960, p. 30. On Menns friendship with Corot see Marc Fehlmann, 'Menn Copiste II. Barthélemy Menn et ses contemporains', in: Genava. Revue d'histoire de l'art et d'archéologie, Vol. 57, 2009, pp. 61–91, esp. pp. 83–87.
- Guinand, Léon, Notice abrégée des principes de Barthélemy Menn sur l'art et l'enseignement humaniste. Genf: Jarrys, 1893;
- Daniel Baud-Bovy, Notice sur Barthélemy Menn. Peintre et éducateur, Geneva: La Montagne, 1898.
- Anna Lanicca, Barthélemy Menn. Eine Studie, Strassburg: J. H. Ed. Heitz, 1911
- Daniel Baud-Bovy, ‘Lettres de Rome de Barthélemy Menn à Jules Hébert’, in: Jahrbuch für Kunst Kunstpflege in der Schweiz 1921–1924, Vol. III, Basel: Birkhäuser, 1925, pp. 326 –359.
- Daniel Baud-Bovy, ‘Lettres de Rome de Barthélemy Menn à Jules Hébert’, in: Jahrbuch für Kunst Kunstpflege in der Schweiz 1925–1927, Vol. IV, Basel: Birkhäuser, 1927, pp. 201 –225.
- Daniel Baud-Bovy, Barthélemy Menn. Dessinateur, Geneva: Les Éditions du Rhône, 1943.
- Jura Brüschweiler, Barthélemy Menn 1815–1893: Étude critique et biographique, Zurich: Fretz & Wasmuth, 1960
- Georges Vigne, Les élèves d'Ingres, Ausstellungskatalog Montauban, Besançon 2000, Montauban, Musée Ingres 2000, pp. 20–21.
- Marc Fehlmann, 'Menn Copiste I. Barthélemy Menn et l'Antiquité', in: Genava. Revue d'histoire de l'art et d'archéologie, Vol. 56, 2008, pp. 25–41.
- Marc Fehlmann, 'Menn Copiste II. Barthélemy Menn et ses contemporains', in: Genava. Revue d'histoire de l'art et d'archéologie, Vol. 57, 2009, pp. 61–91.
- Matthias Fischer, Der junge Hodler. Eine Künstlerkarriere 1872-1897, Wädenswil: Nimbus, 2009. ISBN 978-3-907142-30-1