The French painter and engraver Tobeen was born in Bordeaux in 1880 and died in Saint-Valery-sur-Somme in 1938. He worked in a period when the art world was in a radical state of change. In 1907 he moved to Paris and followed closely the development of Cubism. He also experimented with it himself, but in the end adopted a poetic-realistic style. However, the influence of Cubism remained visible in his work.
Tobeen exhibited at key exhibitions such as the Section d’or, Paris 1912, as well as many others in Salons and galleries. He worked slowly and his œuvre consists of only about three hundred works, mostly paintings and a number of wood-cuts, water-colours and drawings. As a result of this limited output there were fewer works to come onto the market and his reputation has remained limited. Nevertheless Tobeen’s significance did not escape the notice of important art-dealers among others in the Netherlands and his work is to be found in the collections of various French, American and Dutch museums. It receives brief reviews in art-historical survey studies and is featured in newspaper and magazine articles. Jean Richard, a retired dentist, began to collect data about Tobeen’s life and work in the nineteen seventies. His findings and those of more recent research are to be found in this monograph published to coincide with an exhibition dedicated solely to Tobeen’s work in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux and the Museum Flehite in Amersfoort (Netherlands) in 2012.
Though Tobeen was born and bred in Bordeaux, because of the many Basque subjects he painted he is known as a Basque artist. However, he was not a Basque and neither were his parents. Not only that, his name was not officially Tobeen but Félix Elie Bonnet. Tobeen, always without a forename, was his pseudonym and a playful anagram of Bonnet. He signed both his work and his letters with this pseudonym and his friends called him by that name. Félix Bonnet came from a family of artisans and acquired his first professional knowledge in his father’s and uncle’s workshops where there were wood workers and wood decorators. He then became apprenticed to the Bordeaux artist Emile Brunet. So it seems that Tobeen was partly self-taught and partly trained.
When he left for Paris he was following in the footsteps of his fellow townsmen, Albert Marquet and Odilon Redon. There he met painters who ‘would be soon called cubists’. This quotation is from a letter of Tobeen’s to his friend the painter Andre Lhote in Bordeaux. Both were intensely interested in the new developments in art. Tobeen’s Le bassin dans le parc (1913) exemplifies this. Although he lived in Paris for many years, up until about 1924, Tobeen was not a city lover. He returned throughout his life to Bordeaux, to the forests of Les Landes and the vineyards of Médoc, or even more southerly to the Basque country and the Basque coast. He loved the rural life there – the villages at the foot of the Pyrenees, and loved the harbour towns and the Basque men and women. His work bears witness to this: Paysage basque (1910), Pelote-players (1912), Buveur à la gourde (1916), La Basquaise devant le port de Ciboure and Vue de Saint-Jean-de-Luz (1927).
In Bordeaux itself conservatism held sway, modern art was not exhibited, and collectors of contemporary art, Impressionists, Expressionists, or Symbolists were few and far between. One of the exceptions was the Bordeaux wine-grower Gabriel Frizeau whose home provided Tobeen with an artistic haven. Frizeau’s collection held colourful works by Gauguin, Adolphe Monticelli, Georges Rouault and Maurice de Vlaminck and Symbolists such as Odilon Redon. Moreover Frizeau regularly received painters in his salon, in addition to Tobeen himself, Charles Lacoste and André Lhote whose work Frizeau purchased. But there were also writers, poets, journalists and critics: Francis Jammes, Olivier Hourcade and François Mauriac, all from Aquitaine, and many others from Paris and elsewhere: Paul Claudel, Alain-Fournier, André Gide and Jacques Rivière whom Tobeen also saw in Paris.
It was through Jammes and Claudel that Tobeen became involved with the revival of Catholicism in France. Claudel was a fervent Roman Catholic and made a powerful religious appeal to his friends. Frizeau, Jammes, and Olivier Hourcade all heeded his call. Tobeen was a born Catholic but repudiated the dogmatism of the Church. ‘Know thyself’ was his belief. Still, it was from a religious perspective that he saw an inter-connection between the past, the present and the future, and between everything in nature. Mankind was just a minute part of this great whole. Tobeen’s religious cast of mind coupled with his circle of Catholic artist friends who consciously lived their faith will surely have influenced his choice of subject; La femme aux fleurs, L’adoration des bergers and Le sommeil du fils point to episodes in the New Testament.
Tobeen and the energetic poet, writer and critic Olivier Hourcade became very close friends, but their friendship was cut short when Olivier Hourcade was killed at the beginning of the First World War in 1914. He had been a great admirer of Tobeen’s work and had written on several occasions about it. Partly through him Tobeen was invited to attend (literary) meetings in Paris, for example, at l’Abbaye de Créteil and La Closerie des Lilas. And through him he also met the poet Jean Lebrau and they became long-standing friends. It is clear from the letters of Tobeen to Lebrau from 1913 to 1925 that Tobeen was a very active artist with very many contacts, and was a great enthusiast of country life. His letters show too that he was not without the requisite self-mockery (he had started off earning his living as a clown), was always ready to help and was easily distracted from his work. He called his tiny studio in Paris a pigeon-loft.
As well as attending literary meetings in Paris Tobeen and Olivier Hourcade , used to frequent the studios of the brothers Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon in Puteaux, and that of Albert Gleizes in Courbevoie, both in the Paris area. Here they brainstormed and developed new theories about Cubism. Group exhibitions were planned, including the Section d’or Exhibition of 1912. Around 1911 these artists were somewhat mockingly called Cubists. They carried on from Cézanne, limited the use of colour and used abstract (geometric) forms. Jacques Villon, to whom Tobeen dedicated a version of Le filet, initiated interest in the classic Golden Ratio and the ideas of Leonardo da Vinci. He propagated the application of classical proportion and wanted his work to show ‘un classicisme de la modernité’ which is also what Gleizes and Metzinger advocated in their book Du “Cubisme”. Tobeen himself did not strive for a mechanical application of fixed proportionate measure as in the Golden Ratio, but rather for a harmony and a rhythm which satisfied him intuitively, and were in his opinion ageless. His work undoubtedly belonged to the Section d’or school of artists who did in fact paint in a “style parallèle” to the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, but nevertheless Tobeen maintained a critical distance from the group ‘whose theories interested me at first,’ as he wrote, but of which ‘the impossibility of rendering them in plastic forms was clear to me from the start.’ He continued in the Western tradition but in his own particular Cubistic and Orphic way, and then adopted a post-Cubistic, poetical style: La femme aux fleurs (1913), Le filet (1913). He became well-known when his painting Pelotaris (1912), on show at the Salon des Indépendants in 1912, was purchased by the influential art-critic Théodore Duret. At the same Salon, two years later, the Dutch clergyman and collector H. van Assendelft bought Le filet (1913). He loaned the work in 1914 for exhibition under the auspices of the Rotterdamsche Kunstkring.
In this period Tobeen also made his appearance as a stage designer. Olivier Hourcade and his friend Carlos Larronde had arranged Paul Claudel’s play l’Otage as a “lecture-jouée” in Bordeaux and a little later in Paris. The Parisian stage-set was quite simple: it consisted of a hugely prominent statue of Christ Crucified created by Tobeen. Larronde praised it effusively, but the playwright himself was far from pleased with the “Christ cubiste.” Then in 1913 the Théâtre Idéaliste was founded with Tobeen again working as a stage designer. But the theatre was disbanded in 1914, and after the war Tobeen devoted himself to painting.
Tobeen fought in the army for six months from March to September 1915 and was seriously injured. After hospital treatment he was honourably discharged from military service. In September 1916 he married the poetess Louise Justine Dewailly (known as Madeleine) in Paris. He picked up where he had left off and started painting again and preparing his work for exhibition and sale. The art-market began to revive and in May 1917 he had a solo-exhibition at the Eugène Blot Gallery. It was not long before Tobeen discovered that Northern France, where Dewailly came from, was just as pleasant as his beloved South. The channel coast, ‘where a strong wind continually blows,’ attracted them most. In the autumn of 1919, for the first time since the war had ended, he started to send work to the Salons again. He exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in that year, and from then most years until 1934. He received frequent invitations from galleries and his second solo-exhibition was held in November 1921 at the Haussmann Gallery.
From 1920 to 1924 Tobeen exchanged his busy Parisian life for the calm of painting in Saint Valery-sur-Somme, especially in summer – or in Nice in the winter. In 1924 the couple settled permanently in Saint Valery. He had begun to paint in a more realistic style, but signs of Cubism remained discernible, for example in Maison blanche avec un petit étang, La maison blanche and Le repos (dating from after 1920); these paintings and many still lifes radiate an intimate and poetic atmosphere.
Every few months Tobeen and his wife took the train to Paris for a few days to attend to his business affairs. In 1927 the Druet Gallery held an exhibition of about ten “peintres bordelais” including Lacoste, Lhote, Marquet, Sonneville and Tobeen. The influential art connoisseur H.P. Bremmer bought two of Tobeen’s paintings both dating from about 1927: Nature morte aux pivoines and Vue de Saint-Jean-de-Luz for the Kröller-Müller Collection. Then, as a result of Bremmer’s influence, interest in Tobeen’s work grew in the Netherlands. From 1928 until the Second World War the Amsterdam art-dealers Huinck and Scherjon handled Tobeen’s work, but trade was poor during the crisis years of the nineteen-thirties. Tobeen died in 1938 in Saint-Valery-sur-Somme leaving his wife without means. In the course of time she sold what remained of his work to the Dutch art-dealer G.J. Nieuwenhuizen Segaar of the Hague, among others.
After the Second World War interest in Tobeen’s work dwindled at first, but in the nineteen-sixties there was a growing appreciation world-wide of the painters working in the “style parallèle” to the Cubism of Picasso and Braque. In the wake of the renewed interest in the artists of the Section d’or Tobeen was included in group-exhibitions and once again his name appears in art-historical literature. The purpose of this monograph is to lend support to an enduring interest in Tobeen’s work.