Émile Henri Bernard was born on 28 April 1868 in Lille, France. Bernard spent much of his childhood with his grandmother in Lille, who was a great supporter of his artistic aspirations. In 1884, he joined the Atelier Cormon, where he befriended fellow artists Louis Anquetin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Bernard experimented with Impressionism and Pointillism before leaving in 1886; he would travel around Brittany on foot, eventually meeting Paul Gauguin in Pont-Aven. Over the next two years, travelling between Paris and Pont-Aven, Bernard would meet Vincent Van Gogh and co-found the group Les Nabis (‘the prophets’) with Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier and others.
Bernard painted numerous landscapes and everyday scenes, but also drew upon religious and symbolist motifs. Stylistically, his work was characterised by bold forms outlined by dark contours, which came to be known as cloisonnism – coined by critic Édouard Dujardin at the 1888 Salon des Indépendants. Along with Gauguin, Bernard would develop the synthetic simplification of an idea (visually through cloisonnism) into what is now known as Pont-Aven Symbolism. The two would fall out in 1891 over Bernard’s frustration over the lack of acknowledgement he received for the development of the style. Between 1889 and 1892, Bernard exhibited under the guise of various groups – Nabis, Synthetists, Symbolists – at the Café Volpini (1889), Le Barc de Bouteville (1891) and Salon de la Rose+Croix (1892), as well as the Salon des Indépendants.
From 1893, Bernard travelled extensively, visiting Italy, Spain, Germany, Greece, Turkey, Israel and Egypt – where he would live – with intermittent returns to France. Bernard’s subjects took on Orientalist themes during this period, whilst his style became more eclectic under the influences of French Classicism and Italian Primitivism. He returned to France definitively in 1904, and met Cézanne. Over the final decades of his life, Bernard continued to paint but also took on commissions, including painting frescoes at Saint-Malo-de-Phily (1933) and creating fifty etchings to illustrate Victor Hugo’s La fin de Satan (1934). Bernard died on 16 April 1941, in Paris.
Bernard’s work can be found in the following selected international collections: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; Kunstmuseum Basel; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Musée Van Gogh, Amsterdam; Musée d’Orsay, Paris; Musée des Beaux-Arts de Pont-Aven.