Camille Flers (1802 - 1868)

Camille Flers was one of the first French landscape painters to turn away from an idealized nature harboring nymphs and classical heroes in favor of farmyards and real woodlands.  Flers, who was a few years older than the artists known as the Barbizon School, was closely associated with the romantics, the generation of French artists, poets and dramatists who came of age around the Revolution of 1830 and led the movement to greater naturalism in all art forms.  Flers painted initially in the parks and cultivated forests on the western edge of Paris, later establishing himself in the more rustic farmlands northeast of the city.  Through close friendships with Troyon and Diaz he is often associated with the Barbizon artists.

Flers was born in 1802, the son of the director of a porcelain factory just outside Paris.  At an early age, he studied art with an elderly portraitist well versed in eighteenth-century pastel drawing – Flers would later play a crucial role in the mid-century revival of pastel techniques.   As a teenager, Flers worked as a decorator of porcelains – a very practical painterly training that he shared with several other innovative landscape artists: Diaz, Jules Dupre, and Pierre Renoir.

In his late teens, Flers was sent to work in the studios of the Ciceri Family, the most important painters of stage decors in the capital.  Eugene Ciceri, a few years younger than Flers, would later share his interest in landscape painting and provided Flers with a strong link to the artists working in Barbizon and the Forest of Fontainebleau.  But initially, Flers seems to have been as captivated by the stage as by painting, and before he reached twenty he acted, wrote and produced plays, and set off on a voyage to Brazil – on which he supported himself as a cook, a painter of portraits and shop signs, and even a dancing instructor!  After adventures worthy of one of the century’s worst serial novelists, Flers returned to his father’s porcelain works and committed himself to a concentrated period of study and painting directly from nature – then still an unusual undertaking.  He worked in the park like forests around Saint-Cloud, on the heights above the Seine (on the western edge of today’s Paris).  Flers’ use of pastel for landscape studies was quite unusual in the 1820’s, although it would later become the favored sketching technique of several of the Impressionists – notably Boudin and Monet – in the 1860’s.  In 1822, Flers debuted at the Salon of 1831 with a landscape from a recent trip to Switzerland – an area whose dramatic scenery attracted several of the artists who were turning away from the idealized Italianate landscape subjects professed by official Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

Flers quickly became associated with the group of literary, dramatic and artistic rebels who were challenging academic traditions.  Often called the romantics, or the Men of 1830, the best known members of the group were Victor Hugo and Eugene Delacroix.

During his mature career, Flers worked primarily in the area of lower Normandy and Picardy.  He became known for farmyard scenes featuring thatched cottages, horse ponds, willows and great village elms – all landscape elements that were quite distinct from idealized motifs which had dominated landscape painting in France for so long.  He became especially celebrated among other artists for his sky studies and his skill in capturing the quiet, cloudy atmosphere of the humid river regions north and east of Paris.  His work was generally well received at the Salons of the 1830’s and 1840’s and several of his paintings were reproduced and circulated in lithographs or etchings, increasing his influence on the next generation.  Flers died in 1868, just as the school of naturalist French landscape painters was achieving international fame.