Collection of Gaston Palewski, thence by descent to his wife ;
Violette de Tallyrand, Duchess de Sagan
Georges Michel was born on 12 January 1763 in Paris.1 He came from a
humble background, his father being an employee at the market of Les Halles.
At an early age, he worked on a farm in the Saint-Denis region, north of Paris,
where Michel first developed his interest in the countryside. In 1775, Michel
was apprenticed to a mediocre history painter, but he preferred to go off and
sketch outdoors. A colonel of the Hussars engaged him in his regiment
garrisoned in Normandy and arranged for him to take further lessons. He
remained there for more than a year, after which he returned to Paris. Later, in
1789, Michel left for Switzerland, and also visited Germany.
The art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun authorized Michel to copy the
seventeenth century Dutch paintings that were in his shop and was in a way
very responsible for the artist’s further artistic development. In 1791, Michel
debuted at the Salon, where he continued to exhibit regularly. Nevertheless, the
critics ignored Michel because his paintings were considered too similar to
those of the Dutch masters. Around 1800, Michel was employed by the Musée
du Louvre to restore their Flemish and Dutch paintings and it was in this
capacity that he developed a true understanding of the technique of his predecessors.
In 1808, he decided to set up a studio and give lessons without much
success since he stopped teaching the following year. In 1813, he opened a
shop adjacent to his studio and sold furniture and paintings. Discouraged by
numerous refusals, he exhibited for the last time at the Salon of 1814. After the
death in 1820 of the last surviving of his eight children, he left Paris to stay for
one year in Picardy. After his return, he began to lead a reclusive life and
gradually withdrew from the art world. Because of his self-imposed artistic
isolation, Michel had to rely solely on the patronage of Baron d’Ivry, who
purchased almost his entire output until 1830, when the two men had a falling
out over political differences.
Michel always painted within a small area limited to the surroundings of Paris.
He commented that ‘whoever cannot paint within an area of four leagues is but
an unskilled artist who seeks the mandrake and will only ever find a void”. His
preferred locations were Montmartre, where he was inspired by the famous
windmills, the plains of Saint-Denis, the villages of Vaugirard, Grenelle,
Montsouris, Romainville and Le Pré-Saint-Gervais. His small plein air studies
were often drawings heightened with watercolour wash, which were then used
as preliminaries for paintings worked up in the studio. His career can be
divided into three phases. The first until circa 1808, includes the period of his
collaboration with Jean-Louis Demarne and Jacques-François Swebach, artists
who often executed the staffage of his landscapes. Later, he developed a more
personal vision, in which light and the treatment of the sky and space became
his principal concern. His paintings became more unified compositionally, with
vast expanses of landscape and wide perspectives under stormy skies. The
windmills are often the sole accents punctuating the compositions. After 1830
he was at the peak of his talent, his style becoming even more lyrical and
visionary. His brushstrokes are broader and his paint thicker. He reinforced the
dramatic tension by accentuating the heaviness of the skies and the contrasts of
light and dark.
Michel had little interest in fame, and with the exception of a few early
paintings, his works are unsigned. Michel meant that the quality of the painting
should speak to the beholder, and not the signature. Michel never achieved
success during his lifetime and in 1841, two years before his death, the contents
of his studio, consisting of more than 1000 studies and 2000 drawings, were
put up at auction. The Barbizon painter Charles Jacques acquired several of his
works and other artists from this group like Jules Dupré were much inspired by
Michel. His importance is as a precursor of the works of the Barbizon school,
while his own oeuvre has not yet been give the attention, which it deserves.
The present work Man and Rider in a Landscape, comes from the collection of
the famous art collector Gaston Palewski (1901 – 1984), who was Chief of
State under General Charles de Gaulle from 1942-1946. He was married to
Violette de Tallyrand, Duchess de Sagan who upon his death in 1984 inherited
his vast art collection.
Authorship of this work has been confirmed by Michel Schulman.