The lovers stand apart, but their bodies lean toward each other and their elbows are almost touching, resting on the parapet of the bridge. Her face is turned toward him, but her eyes are turned away; he is looking at her. The light rests gently on the side of her face and her neck. It picks out his hand, the cigarette cradled in it and the creases in his clothing more harshly. She seems tranquil, he restless. They stand out against the more lightly sketched in background of autumn trees, walkway and water, and buildings and mountains fading into the distance. Who are they, and what are they talking about?
We know who the artist is – Emile Friant, well-known for his portrayals of people. He was very much in demand as a portrait painter and admired for his ability to create a sense of life in his paintings. It was a skill based on a natural talent developed and honed over time through learning, exploration and just plain hard work.
His career began very young, helped by chance. As a young teenager he fled his home in Dieuze when that part of France was annexed by the Germans after the Franco-Prussian War. The town that he fled to was Nancy, one of the key artistic centres of France.
There his artistic training began with drawing courses at school, followed by enrollment in the art school where he became a favorite student of the director. He was very young, fifteen, when he began showing at the local Salon with older, more established artists. At sixteen he was awarded a scholarship by the local council to continue his studies in Paris.
In Paris he had to adjust to the atelier* system, which he found difficult at first. In the end persistence and hard work were rewarded; as he learned and exhibited in the Paris Salons his talent was recognized and his popularity grew. And he kept learning and exploring.
He won scholarships offered by the French government, and used the money to expand his horizons, as an artist and as a person. His travels took him to Holland, to Tunisia via Rome and Naples, and to Spain, Holland and Algiers.
He created this painting in 1888. By then his talent was mature, his skills secure. So you don’t see the hard work, the practice, his own exploration. What you do see is a painting that draws us in, inviting us to think about the life of the people he painted: the young couple in Les Amoureux, speaking, perhaps, of love in Autumn.
Friant created the image of them, then left it open for us to explore.
* The atelier system consisted of a series of centres where a very comprehensive and advanced fine arts training was provided. Students worked in groups under the guidance of accomplished and established artists to develop their skills to professional levels.