J.B. Antoine Guillemet was the most successful French landscapist of the last quarter of the nineteenth-century. A friend of many of the Impressionists and an intimate of the great novelist Emile Zola, Guillemet chose to continue exhibiting within the Salon system when his colleagues began their program of independent exhibitions. In dramatic views of Parisian quais and industrial suburbs or storm ravaged Norman seacoasts, Guillemet explored many of the same issues that preoccupied his avant-garde friends: brighter colors, more individualistic paint handling, and the assertion of a 'modern' attitude toward landscape. His widely admired painterly skills combined with his loyalty to the beleaguered academic system won Guillemet support from conservative and liberal critics alike, and nearly half of his Salon paintings were acquired for French museums. As his working sketches and smaller pictures for private patrons have become better known during the last twenty years, Guillemet's affinities with the Impressionists are being recognized and his paintings hold a leading place in the re-appraisal of nineteenth-century landscape painting.
Jean-Baptiste Antoine Guillemet was born June 30, 1841 into a family of prosperous ship owners from Rouen. His first drawing lessons were part of a strong bourgeois education, which his family hoped would lead him into law. Only after his mother's death in 1861 left him with a substantial income did Guillemet take up painting in earnest. Through Berthe Morisot, Guillemet met Corot who arranged for him to study with Corot's own pupil, Achille Oudinot. About 1862, Guillemet met Charles Daubigny, with whom he formed a strong friendship despite a twenty-five year age difference. Daubigny included Guillemet on painting excursions in his floating studio ‘botin’ and he brought Guillemet together with a younger group of artists including Manet, Cezanne, Pissarro and the writer Zola.
Studying at the independent 'Atelier Suisse' and frequenting the Cafe Guerbois, Guillemet strengthened his connections to the growing avant-garde movements in art and literature, while continuing his painting excursions with Daubigny. Guillemet had his first painting accepted at the Salon in 1865, but in 1866, 1867 and 1868, his pictures were refused -- along with works by most of his new friends. In 1867, he signed Bazille's petition for a new 'salon des refuses’ and in 1868, he posed with Berthe Morisot for Manet's important painting Le balcon (Paris, Musee d’Orsay). His friends included Monet and Renoir, to whom he provided occasional financial assistance.
In 1870 and 1872, Guillemet's landscapes of the rugged Var countryside and the coast of Normandy were accepted at the Salon and the Norman scene won him an Honorable Mention. When his friends organized the first impressionist exhibition in 1874, Guillemet, after some hesitation (and ostensibly on the advice of his idol Corot), decided not to participate. At the 1874 Salon his immense riverscape, Bercy en decembre, depicting the industrial outskirts of Paris (a kind of urbanized Daubigny riverscape), won him strong acclaim, a second class medal and a purchase grant from the State. Henceforth, Guillemet showed at virtually every Salon until his death in 1918, generally to great praise and frequent official recognition.
Guillemet's paintings of the 1870s are almost evenly divided between scenes of the Seine basin around Paris and the Normandy coast, and for the most part are pure landscapes. They are composed with a strong sense of natural grandeur and Guillemet's paint handling is confident and bold. Although establishment success muted his friendships with the Impressionists during the 1870s, he remained close to Zola and to Cézanne. When Guillemet was elected to the Salon jury, he attempted to secure admission for Cézanne but was thwarted. His discussions with Zola about art politics during the 1870s and 1880s formed the essential reference for the writer's great, traumatic art-world novel, L'Oeuvre (The Masterpiece).
Guillemet continued to paint along the Seine, throughout the Ile-de-France, and in Normandy during the 1880s; and his natural social skills and Salon fame brought him into important social and political circles, sealing his power within the Salon system and allowing him finally to secure Cézanne’s only Salon admission in 1882. In addition to Salon exhibitions, Guillemet was very active in regional art exhibitions and private exhibitions in Paris. As the Impressionist group began to fall apart from its own tensions, Guillemet renewed acquaintances, primarily with Pissarro.
In 1896, the much honored Guillemet was named an Officier of the Legion of Honor. He built a strong friendship with Harpignies, an older landscape painter who had also straddled the worlds of avant garde painting and an entrenched exhibition system. During the first decade of the 1900s, he exhibited pictures of southwestern France, around Carcassone, probably having traveled there with Harpignies or at his urging. During the First World War Guillemet moved to Dordogne. He died there in 1918. The 1920 Salon included a retrospective exhibit of Guillemet's paintings.