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Maximilien Luce, "Gare de l'Est, les Poilus." Oil on re-enforced paper on canvas, 1917. ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l'Hotel-Dieu.

Text copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
Images courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l'Hotel-Dieu

Imagine that Pissarro didn't die in 1903 but continued to live and work for 38 years, extending his explorations in the various streams of Impressionism. Then imagine that he decided to consecrate the force of his talent and energy to more depictions of the poor sap, the working stiff, the pour conscript sacrificed as cannon fodder in a wasteful war, and the social movements championing them. Imagine that his brilliant palette became more dense, retaining the sense of color values he learned from Corot, the precision he picked up from Seurat, and his native curiosity, then augmenting them with the lessons of the Fauves, of late Monet and even Bonnard. Well, you don't have to imagine this artistic extension of a life; Pissarro's friend, pupil, compagnon de la route, fellow anarchist sympathizer and, finally, artistic equal Maximilien Luce embodied it. Imagine, now, that you could see the living proof.


Portrait of Maximilien Luce. Silver print, 14 x 8 cm. Courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l'Hotel-Dieu.


The downside of the news that Christie's had essentially unearthed an early study for Cezanne's mythic "The Card Players" was the realization that this watercolor, so critical for understanding the origins of the impulses behind such a seminal work, had been out of public view for nearly 60 years. While many conscientious private collectors readily lend their work to public expositions, nothing obligates them to do so. Once a work of art has been snapped up at auction by a private collector, nothing guarantees its continued public accessibility .... (That such work is also part of a public heritage is one reason why French law grants the government the right of 'pre-emption' on works up for public auction.) All the more reason to be grateful that Frederic Luce left a stunning 150 of his father's works to the Parisian suburb of Mantes la Jolie and its museum the Hotel Dieu, now celebrating Luce with a new exhibition of 52 works, "Maximilien Luce, de l'esquisse (draft) au chef-d'oeuvre," which follows the artist's process from the draft to the oil painting, including by showcasing similar works in both forms. We're privileged to be able to share some of this work here.


Left: Maximiien Luce, "Les Tanneurs." Oil on paperboard. Right: Maximilien Luce, "Etude pour les Tanneurs." Pencil on paper. Courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l'Hotel-Dieu.


A brief biographical re-cap is perhaps in order to deepen your appreciation of the work represented here: Born in the 6th arrondissement of Paris in 1858, Luce was deeply marked by the Royalist repression of the Paris Commune in 1871, installing himself in 1887 in Montmartre, the foundry of the revolt, taking a room at 6 rue Cortot -- the same address where a certain Erik Satie would move in 1890. (I didn't realize this when, wandering onto this darkened, narrow, steep street one July 14 after watching the fireworks from Montmartre, I discovered the plaque noting Satie had lived there. Perhaps the city of Paris should add, "... and Luce.") Did they overlap? Did Luce's rebellious spirit inspire Satie in some of his own anarchistic musical meanderings? The former soon put these into practice, collaborating with Emile Puget on his anarchist weekly Le Pere Peinard, and participating in other similarly inclined journals, including La Revolte and L'Assiette au Beurre. Such sympathies got him two months in prison when French president Sadi Carnot was assassinated in 1894 by the anarchist Caserio.


Transport d'un blessé. Oil on canvas, 1916, ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l'Hotel-Dieu.


Other tidbits: When Seurat died on March 31, 1891, it was Luce, along with fellow neo-Impressionist Paul Signac and art critic and defender of the movement Felix Feneon, that Seurat's widow charged with making an inventory of his studio. During the "Great War," Luce made a series about Parisian railway stations and soldiers on leave. (Such as the example here.) In 1920 he set up a studio on the rue de Seine. In 1935 he was elected president of the Society of Independent Artists. His wife Ambroisine died June 7, 1940, at the family's home in Rolleboise overlooking the Seine. Luce died in 1941 in his studio on the rue de Seine. When I read that I get sad thinking that he passed not knowing if the Nazis would ever leave Paris, and what would become of the world; our world is richer because of the legacy Luce left us -- and the legacy his son Frederic left to the Hotel de Dieu museum in Mantes la Jolie. And what a potentially transformative legacy it is; when I toyed with the idea of moving from Paris to Mantes la Jolie because of its connection with Camille Corot (the father of them all, including Luce), Parisian friends warned me that it wasn't safe because of the riots. But what better milieu for a conscious artist like Luce to apply his art to social turpitudes, to answer darkness with light?


Maximilien Luce, "La drague a Rotterdam." Oil on canvas. Courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l'Hotel-Dieu.


Maximilien Luce, "Chantier a Rotterdam." Etching. Courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l'Hotel-Dieu.


Maximilien Luce, "Mers-les-Bains, les falaises." Drawing in pencil and colored pencils on paper. ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l'Hotel-Dieu.


Maximilien Luce, Mers-les-Bains, les falaises. Oil on canvas,1903. ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l'Hotel-Dieu.


Maximilien Luce, "La plage de Méricourt, Baignade." Oil on canvas, undated. ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l'Hotel-Dieu.


Maximilien Luce, "Travailleurs poussant un wagonnet." Oil on paperboard, 1905. ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l'Hotel-Dieu.


Maximilien Luce, "Le fardier." Oil on paperboard, undated. ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l'Hotel-Dieu.


Maximilien Luce, "Etudes d'enfants." Charcoal drawing, undated. ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l'Hotel-Dieu.


Maximilien Luce, "La Ferme Vassard." Oil on canvas, circa 1930. Courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l'Hotel-Dieu.


Maximilien Luce in his studio. Courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l'Hotel-Dieu.


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