Johan Barthold Jongkind - The abbé Jean-Louis Gervat (1867-1930), a pupil of Jongkind
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The abbé Jean-Louis Gervat (1867-1930), a pupil of Jongkind

The abbé Gervat
Jean-Louis Gervat was born on 30 November 1867 to a farming family from Saint-Siméon-de-Bressieux, near La Côte-Saint-André.

He attended the village school where he would often trace portraits of his friends and sketch the local characters and landscapes. Poor as he was, he could only dream of bringing colours to his art, although he would sometimes boil up the fragments of silk his mother brought back from her milk round at the local silk mill. He learnt to make the most of the poor coloured washes he obtained.

Whilst continuing to go to school Jean-Louis painted for seven years under Jongkind's guidance, until the point in 1890 when he was awarded a place in the French seminary in Rome.


Gervat, private collection
It is the water-colours of this period that form the major part of Gervat's work. He captures the atmosphere of his subject and landscape as they evolve across time and the seasons. His oils are well structured, suggesting a search for stability, strength, certitude. His landscapes are stripped of anything he finds unnecessary, whilst never losing spontaneity.

The abbé's work was rarely exhibited during his lifetime, however, although Jongkind would always include a few of the young man's water-colours in his exhibitions during the last ten years of his life... "Let's see how the pupil outdoes his master". Gervat remained humble and very discreet, defining himself as "a poor devil Dauphinois painter, whose only merit is to have been Jongkind's unpaying pupil".

In 1927 he was appointed to Noyarey near his home town; from there he was later to establish the "Retirement home for the clergy's maid servants" at Saint-Jean-de-Bournay.


Gervat, private collection



The text that follows is also by Maurice Wantellet. He explains with some emotion how the chance encounter of two men developed into a master and pupil relationship, cordial, fruitful, unwavering.


One summer morning Jean-Louis Gervat was sitting in a meadow, paintbrush in hand, watching over his father's herd, when he looked up to find a tall fellow coming towards him. The old man approached and took a look at the painting; it must have struck a chord, for he said to Jean-Louis: "If you want, we could meet up every day here at this time and do some painting together ". Upon which Jongkind, for it was indeed he, set up his easel at the young shepherd's side; the two of them set to work, in silence. This was the start of a genuine friendship between the adolescent and the old vagabond with a strange foreign accent.

Some time later Jongkind called in at the Gervats' farm. His young friend painted a shepherd and his sheep and the old artist was impressed. He scribbled his signature on the back of the painting, declaring that "We can now say that you're my pupil!". From then on he would fetch his pupil at dawn. He would take very little with him: a sheet of paper torn from an exercise book, a few watercolours dragged from the depths of a pocket and some water from a nearby stream or pond - it was all that he needed to express what he saw in the nature around him.

He would explain to Jean-Louis how to chose his subject, the different ways of capturing the essentials of the scene in a few quick strokes. He developed his sense of light and of colour, bringing him the fruits of his long experience.

The old master would often repeat: "Just continue to be yourself… that's all you need..."

In 1890 the two friends were to see each other for the last time. The young man had finished school brilliantly and was given a place in the French seminary in Rome. Jongkind had spent seven years guiding his pupil. He bequeathed him his water-colours easel and Gervat continued to use it for the rest of his life.

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Text and illustrations from Maurice Wantellet's "Deux siècles de peinture dauphinoise", reproduced, and translated, with the author's kind permission.

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