Émile Henri Bernard

Émile Henri Bernard

At the advent of 20th century French art, Emile Henri Bernard emerged as one of the founding members of Symbolism, a movement with a variety of styles that sprung from Impressionism originally. He particularly pioneered the so-called cloisonnism, a painting style which means “partition”. This French painting style was a reaction to the Impressionists’ study on the depiction of light from what they see, moving away from being so nature-oriented rather than human-centric.

Bernard was one of the first modern painters who had utilized pure color technique without applying too much 3-D modelling effects and shading. This gave him some room to include his own ideas in the painting and combine it with the subject so he could create a very powerful imagery. Apparently, cloisonnism laid the foundations of Expressionism, a new movement that flourished during the early and mid-20th century.

Throughout Bernard’s career, he had been associated with some of the most famous artists of his generation, including the younger painters like Paul Cezanne. He worked closely with the likes of Paul Gaugin, Vincent Van Gogh, Odilon Redon, among many others. His early works are characterized by their vivid color, flat depth of field and these are framed within an inch-thick black outlines.

Bernard’s style eventually changed as he fomented collaboration with his fellow artists. For example, Paul Gauguin had one of the biggest influences on his style as the two of them developed Synthetism, a new style wherein color and form patterns are synthesized with the painter’s ideas and vision about the subject. As a result, Bernard and Gauguin were able to produce very striking, mind-blowing art works. The principle behind this artistic style was that observing the real-world is just part of an artist’s creative process and he or she must do away from exercising a naturalistic focus.

Few examples of Emile Bernard’s symbolic paintings include Breton Women in a Green Pasture (1888), Yellow Tree (1888), Portrait of a Boy in Hat (1889), and Buckwheat Harvesters at Pont-Aven (1888). Additionally, he had produced several paintings dedicated to Vincent Van Gogh.

Early Life

Emile Henri Bernard was born on April 28, 1868 in Lille, France. Most of his younger years were spent looking after his feeble sister, and so his parents paid little attention to him while growing up. He was even sent to live with his grandmother in Lille, who was a laundry service provider. His grandmother provided him the moral support that he needed to pursue his art.

Early Training

In 1878, the Bernard’s moved to Paris, where the young artist would receive his primary education at the College Sainte-Barbe. He then enrolled at an art school, the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs around 1880’s. At some point, he got suspended from the school so he decided to enter the studio of Atelier Cormon in 1884. There, he began doing some experiments with pointillism and impressionism. At a young age, he developed the passion for art theories, approaches and the will to become an innovator of his era.

While rendering his apprenticeship to Cormon, he befriended Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Louis Anquetin. He visited Brittany and toured the place on foot as he was really captivated by the beauty of its rich landscape and architectural tradition. In 1886, his suspension from the college enabled him to have time to meet Paul Gauguin in Pont-Aven. The two exchanged a few words about art at first but they found delight in each other’s common interests. Bernard believed that he played an important role in the development of Gaguin’s style as much as Gauguin had his influences on him. They both were fully-developed artists at the time, who benefited from each other’s maturity in style.


In 1887, Emile Bernard wandered off to the countryside. He met up with his grandmother and painted a portrait of her. Even though he away, he kept in touch with his fellow artists and upon his return, he was introduced to Vincent van Gogh who was keen to meeting him to learn more about his impressive work. Bernard showcased his art pieces to the said painter at a restaurant where other artists would also be there. This meeting eventually bonded them all together, and van Gogh named the group School of Petit-Boulevard.

Bernard traveled to Pont-Aven by foot to visit Paul Gauguin. This time, the two became more connected with each other than their first meeting. The Lille-native exchanged many art theories with Gauguin and his aspirations about his art. He told Gauguin, “[Bernard had] a desire to find an art that would be the most extreme simplicity and that would be accessible to all, so as not to practice its individuality, but collectively…” This is now referred to as Cloisonnism and was labeled by Edouard Dujardin. The unique painting style is often characterized by its distorted figure forms, unnatural yet vivid color, figures are framed within thick black outlines, and 2-D effect.

Truly, Bernard was a visionary. He was later on joined by van Gogh and Gauguin, and all together they painted in Arles from October to December 1888. Bernard produced several works throughout the period, some of which were dedicated to his two allies. An example of one important painting during this period is the Vision after the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Gauguin. Apparently, this particular work presents a very striking symbolism related to Christianity.


In 1891, Emile Bernard was introduced to Symbolism by his association with Symbolist painters Ferdinand Hodler and Odilon Redon. This was also the period when he traveled across Europe and Northern Africa to which provided him an exposure to various painting styles; hence, his style and skill became more diverse.

Bernard also had developed interest in literature as he began writing his own art theories and poems. His education on religious mysticism gave him an in-depth knowledge about symbols and faithfully applied them into his works. In 1889, he spent whole of summer in Le Pouldu trying to find a way to combine symbolism and religious art.

There, he produced a series of paintings for his personal satisfaction while working for a few patrons at the same time. Professionally, he did designs but this did not make him as famous as Gauguin, who emerged as the great leader of a group of avant-garde artists back in Paris and Brittany. Some art historians also believe that Bernard’s decision to go back to classicism was out of spite of Gauguin’s success.

In 1890, Bernard organized a major art show that would showcase the works of Symbolist painters. The exhibition was called Vingt, where Redon and Holder displayed some of their major works. The organization was doing well when Bernard chose to embark on a journey to Spain and Egypt around 1893. One year later, went to Italy to see the works of the Old Masters, after which he finally stayed in Egypt for a decade.

Bernard stayed in Alexandria, Egypt where he shifted his painting style from Symbolism to Classicism. His trip to Spain and Italy must have influenced him that much to embrace the changes it would bring. Ten years later, he returned to Paris and finally founded his own scholarly journal, La Renovation Esthetique. He wrote criticisms about the works of modern-day painters such as Cezanne, van Gogh, Redon, and Seurat.

Old Age

Emile Bernard had spent most years of his old age writing essays on the works of various artists. He became a notorious art critic and theorist but he was much lauded for his diverse range of painting styles. He tried to establish the core foundations of his self-developed techniques such as Cloisonnism and made an effort to re-introduce Symbolism in 1890.

He believed that the early 20th century society had already forgotten about paganist docrtrines and teachings. What he had in mind was to paint and interpret those mystical symbols in the simplest way possible. This way, he could represent the truths found in these symbols.

Emile Bernard retired in Paris and died there in 1941, at the age of 72.


Emile Bernard was one of the youngest modern painters to have founded a group of painters bounded by the same painting style, which was Cloisonnism. He was only 20 years old when he collaborated with Gauguin in developing Synthetism, although he seemed to have a very bright career ahead, this did not materialize when he stopped doing oil painting at the age of 26. He traveled a lot, developed art theories, wrote critical essays and organized a new movement.

During his early adulthood, he found himself playing an important role in Gauguin’s maturity. They had exchanged a series of correspondence in which they shared their respective ideas and visions for the art. Some years later after their death, these letters would become a significant research material to understand early modern art. However, Gauguin never credited Bernard for his influence on his artistic and creative development, particularly on pictorial symbolism.