Issue 232
July/August 2024

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Jul 24, 2024

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Out of the Shadows

Cathy Bell on an artist long undiscovered

SOMETIMES artists with great talent go without credit or recognition on a worldwide platform. This can happen for several reasons, perhaps the individual was not pushy enough or interested in self-promotion, or maybe they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In the case of the French painter Louis Fortunet, it was probably the former reason. According to a small book dedicated to the life and career of Fortunet (Louis Fortunet, From the Shadows to the Light by Richard Jacques) the author explains that he "was a simple man who was reserved by nature". It is also true to note that the latter option was not the case since Fortunet was certainly in the right place at the right time as far as being an artist was concerned.

Born in 1904, Louis grew up in the small town of Ceret in southern France, a town well known for its artistic associations. Those years during the first half of the twentieth-century have been well documented, Ceret has been cited as the Mecca of Cubism, a place where modern movements in art first came into being.

One of the artists who lived and worked in Ceret was the Russian painter Chaim Soutine and, according to the book, Fortunet had been given access to the studio of Soutine when he was a teenager. Writing in the preface of the book Alain Ribes states "I like to imagine the moment when this teenager was allowed to for the first time push open the doors of the grandmaster's workshop".

It is believed that, because of this experience, Fortunet was immediately struck by the desire to paint, which he did for the rest of his life. He was the only young artist allowed to paint in the studio, it is even suggested that he was taught to paint by Soutine himself.

His sister Therese modelled for Soutine's painting The Girl in Red and as a young girl in her early teens she also ran errands for the artist, young Louis and his friends were known to keep guard at Soutine's studio door while the artist painted sides of raw meat, apparently the neighbours had been complaining about the smell.

However, after being initiated at a young age into the world of art and painting, Fortunet became a nurse, unlike his friend who helped to guard the studio door Camile Decossy who later became Director of the Beaux-Arts de Montpellier.

So although Fortunet did not fully immerse himself in the art world he continued to paint all his life, during the 1950's he could be seen with his easel set up in and around the area, particularly in Ceret and the nearby coastal town of Collioure. His environment was his subject, the landscape of Vallespir, "the roofs of Ceret, villages, ponds, small ports, boats and fisherman's huts".

It is clear that he was content to depict what he saw around him as his subject matter. He declared that he did not see why he should go looking for subjects when everything he had in front of him inspired him as it had inspired Picasso, Soutine, Kremenge, Marchand and Herbin. So, Fortunet continued to paint the "small stone walls and gardens, the countryside with its olive trees, cherry trees and cork oak groves"

He participated in many exhibitions throughout his life, his first exhibiting experience came in 1958 when the patron of the Grand Café in Ceret Catherine Erre invited him to exhibit around forty paintings. After this Fortunet continued to exhibit in France and also abroad, he held successful exhibitions in Cannes and Germany, for example. In 2009 the Musé e d'Art de Ceret exhibited four paintings by him in the exhibition Ceret, A Century of Sublime Landscapes.

This is said to be official recognition of the painter who, on this occasion, rubbed shoulders with the greatest painters of the twentieth-century. Yet, although not internationally known, Fortunet's memory and his legacy still resonate, some of his paintings can be found on the walls of Ceretan houses to this day. There is also a street named after him in the town, Rue Louis Fortunet. And, although he did not herald any new advances in painting he was born to paint, he was an artist rooted in his surrounding environment.

To quote Richard Jacques the author of the book "Fortunet sings of his native country and sings well with accents that sound right that give his paintings a beautiful and healthy atmosphere, that smell of the soil, the true soil, the one that will never be adulterated"

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