Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on September 29, 2006 with the permission of the Virginia Historical Society. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Virginia Historical Society directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

The Life of Pierre Daura

by William M. S. Rasmussen

 

Born in 1896 on the island of Minorca, some two hundred miles off the east coast of Spain, Pierre Daura was reared in Barcelona and apprenticed in Paris, cities that at the turn of the twentieth century were fertile environments for writers and artists. Barcelona nourished Catalans who were proud to perpetuate local traditions of creativity. In Paris, a modern lifestyle of rapid communication, fast travel, and cultural interaction was just beginning to emerge in the rich setting of the Old World, threatening to push aside the horse-driven society of the pre-industrial era in dramatic fashion. To acknowledge that progress, writers and artists there grafted elements of new and modern expression upon the centuries-old traditions in literature and the arts that they inherited. During years when Barcelona was vibrant with artistic activity and the creative impulse in Paris was at an explosive high, Daura immersed himself in the art scenes of those cities and drank liberally of both the old and the new. To Virginia he would eventually carry the vision and artistic experience that he developed in the cities and countryside of Spain and France.[1]

Daura's father was a percussionist in the Barcelona symphony orchestra. To supplement his modest salary as a musician, he operated a small textile business. Pierre's mother died in 1903, when he was only seven. Pierre had two godfathers, whose careers in the arts inevitably influenced the boy: the renowned Catalan concert cellist Pablo Casals and an Italian painter, Pietro Rosario Cavallini. One of Pierre's teachers at the Barcelona School of Fine Arts (La Llotja) was José Ruiz Blasco, the father of Pablo Picasso. Outside of Pierre's immediate acquaintances were further artistic influences. Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, a region with a strong identity and fierce pride. "Art fever like a great fog hung all the time over the town of Barcelona," Daura later wrote. He remembered "museums, concerts, opera, theatre" and twenty-five or thirty art galleries, all supported by "a little people" who enjoyed "a great life." Among the many Catalan artists who migrated to Paris at this time were ones who shaped the course of modern art: Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Salvador Dalí all followed the same artistic path to France that would nurture Daura.

In 1914, at age eighteen, Pierre set out for Paris. He served an apprenticeship there with the painter and art theorist Émile Bernard, who early in his career had come to know three of the giants of French Post-Impressionist painting, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Cézanne. Through study with Bernard, Daura was exposed to their philosophies, at a time when few knew much about their work. In 1920, while in Toledo, Spain, he rediscovered the expressionist style of the seventeenth-century Spaniard El Greco. In Paris, he developed his skills as a painter and as a printmaker, while absorbing additional influences from contemporaries. Daura was inspired by Amadeo Modigliani's bold and original expression. In 1925 he befriended Joaquín Torres-García, the Catalan-Uruguayan painter. Daura later described this formative period of his career as one given entirely to self-improvement: "only one thing counted: an artist dedicated himself to the pursuit of perfection, to the practice of his art. . . . Your guiding preoccupation was the goodness of your work." As with the other Catalans in Paris, these years proved to be time well spent for Daura.

In 1927 Pierre met Louise Blair of Richmond. She would become his wife, and in little more than a decade, they would settle in Virginia. Louise was one of eleven children of Lewis Blair, a Confederate veteran who was twice the age of Louise's mother Martha, his second wife. In 1889, Blair had broken with traditional perceptions of the heritage of the Old South when he published an enlightened book entitled The Prosperity of the South Dependent Upon the Elevation of the Negro. He had prospered in Richmond as a businessman, and his collecting of Greek and Chinese porcelain pointed at least one of his daughters towards art. Louise grew up at 2327 Monument Avenue and was educated in Richmond at St. Catherine's School, and then at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. Upon graduation, she set off for Europe to study painting, accompanied by her cousin Anne Blair Matthews, also of Richmond. The pair traveled to London, Brussels, and then to Paris, where Louise was introduced to a young Spanish painter who soon became more interested in her than in her art. When the trip resumed the next spring, Pierre Daura joined the pair and they painted together in Corsica. Several months later, a Corsican landscape by Louise was accepted at the Salon d'Automne, whose jury at that time rejected paintings by Daura and several of his associates, including Torres-García and Jean Hélion, whose names are now famous in the history of art. Pierre, however, was soon given his first Paris solo show, where his work was praised for "sincerity" and "distinction." The reviewer added, "For Daura, painting is a joy." As it turned out, those words would well describe his life's output. The couple was married in December 1928. Sister Jean Blair was sent to the wedding to represent the bride's family. There she met Jean Hélion, whom she later married.

In 1929, Pierre took his bride to his Catalan homeland to meet his family, and "to rediscover my personality . . . to see our countryside, to breathe our air, to see with this light very much our own." Those thoughts were offered in a local newspaper interview in Tarragona, a picturesque city of medieval architecture and Roman ruins that rises above the Mediterranean Sea. Daura was a different artist from the one who had left fifteen years earlier, because he now carried the latest French ideas on art. In Paris, he had observed how Cubist painters, particularly his Catalan countryman Picasso, had "modernized" Cézanne's simplification of elements and dynamic handling of space. They were searching for structure befitting the pace of twentieth-century life. Daura would modernize the Catalan landscape in a parallel way. "I believe that painting, like architecture, must tend toward a greater simplicity, a greater structuralization, toward better architectonics," he added in the newspaper interview. In Catalonia, he would not push his images to abstraction, as the Cubists threatened to do, but instead he would retain the essential elements of a scene, determine and emphasize their underlying geometry, and then paint freely, infusing the whole with light and color. Here was the key to Daura's art, to his landscapes, still lifes, and portraits. Both in Europe and later in America, his canvases would convey, in Daura's own, original style, the feelings of vitality, underlying order, and the "joy" that can emanate from an actual scene. In Virginia, no painter had ever before worked with so great an understanding of post-realist art.

Reinvigorated by his trip home, Pierre Daura returned to Paris to pursue an increasingly modernist stance. He aligned himself with the many avant-garde artists there, and perhaps in so doing locked permanently into place his inclination to paint with simplicity and structure. For a while he flirted with near-abstraction and even with nonrepresentational art. He joined Michel Seuphor and Torres-García to organize Cercle et Carré (Circle and Square), a group of some eighty artists who called themselves "Constructivists." Louise defined Constructivists as "those who believe in abstract art that is 'constructed,' no matter how it manifests itself." Daura devised the group's simple logo of a black circle and a black square joined by the word "et." Many of the members-Jean Arp, Piet Mondrian, Vasily Kandinsky, Fernand Léger, Amédée Ozenfant, Antoine Pevsner, and Georges Vantongerloo-were, or soon became, famous. But so large a grouping of individualists was perhaps destined to be short-lived, and Cercle et Carré would stay together for only two years. By then, Daura had relocated to the French countryside. There representational imagery returned to his canvases, which could only be better "constructed" following his experimentation with abstraction.

In 1929, on their return to Paris from Barcelona, the Dauras found their future home in the medieval town of St. Cirq-Lapopie, just east of Cahors and some 360 miles south of Paris. Pierre had first discovered St. Cirq years earlier when searching for picturesque scenery. Louise later described the village as "tiny" and "built on a perpendicular cliff, high above the river Lot, the tall towers of the church reaching even higher. The whole town is Gothic . . . massive stone, with Gothic marvels of windows and portals." In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, St. Cirq had supported 6,000 residents; by 1929 the population had fallen to 300. The house that the Dauras bought is large; it had been built around 1225 not for family use but by the Bishop of Cahors to accommodate the priests and brothers of the diocese. Seven hundred years later it was in bad condition, and for years Pierre and Louise would work to restore it. The house served as their principal residence from 1930 until they moved to Virginia in 1939. After World War II, whenever possible, the Dauras returned to St. Cirq to spend at least part of the year there.

From the start, Pierre and Louise enjoyed to the fullest the lifestyle at St. Cirq. "The drama that passes daily among these 300 inhabitants is more exciting and poignant than in all the movies and plays of the big city," Louise wrote. Soon a daughter, Martha, was born. Louise recalled, "Pierre, Martha and I lived as the peasants did, in ways that hadn't changed since the 13th century. . . . Anything that was brought in came by horse or donkey cart owned by a villager." "And we painted," she added. "At every turn there was a subject. A lifetime of painting wouldn't exhaust [us]." The scenery of St. Cirq became, in fact, one of Pierre Daura's great inspirations. He wrote,

Down in the valley, with the wide river winding between cultivated fields on one side, bordered with lofty poplars and blue cliffs on the other, there is a spirit of peace and calm, accentuated by the yoked oxen, chocolate brown, plowing up earth of the same color. It makes me want to paint hundreds of landscapes in the spirit of [the mid-nineteenth-century French artist] Corot.

The Dauras were in turn rewarded for their efforts with exhibitions of their canvases in France and Spain. In 1934 a reviewer wrote of Pierre, "Daura's name must be inscribed among the names of the best interpreters of the Midi [southern France]." Already Pierre had found "the spirit of Corot."

Daura's first trip to Virginia occurred in 1934-35. Louise's mother had not seen her daughter for six years, or her granddaughter at all, and most of the family had never met Pierre. It was not in Richmond, however, that the Dauras spent most of their visit, but in Rockbridge Baths, a community ten miles west of Lexington that was renowned for its therapeutic mineral waters. There, out of admiration for Robert E. Lee, Mrs. Blair had bought a property that included several mineral baths and the remaining buildings of the old resort hotel frequented by the former Confederate general and his wife in the late 1860s. She gave Louise the ice house and a log cabin as a wedding present. Pierre found the countryside around Rockbridge Baths "very paintable," and he liked the neighbors as well. He set to work producing the earliest of the Virginia landscapes and portraits that are pictured in this catalog. Some were exhibited in Barcelona the following winter.

The years of conflict that would decimate Europe and force the Dauras to return to America began in 1936 with the Spanish Civil War. The monarchy in that country had been forced out of power in 1932, to be replaced by a republican constitution and government. Four years later, political chaos increased to the point that combat broke out between Republicans (Loyalists) and Nationalists (Rebels) led by Francisco Franco. The fighting, which would kill more than half a million people, lasted until 1939. A staunch Republican, Daura watched the crisis mount until he could felt compelled to act: "I can't stay here and let my family be massacred. . . . This is not a simple civil war, this is a foreign invasion. I'm no Anarchist, no Communist, but now is the time for all liberal forces to unite, no matter what their creed. I've got to go." For eight months Daura fought the war, before he was wounded, sent back to France to recover, and in the end invalided out of service. He had sketched his experiences on the front lines, later converting those sketches into drawings, etchings, and paintings. Back in St. Cirq he could not forget the violence: "I can't imagine that the brush in my hand [once] painted the soft and curved lines of a landscape, because today it only wants to paint the rough straight lines of war, blood and destruction."

In April 1939 Franco declared victory in Spain and the end of war there. In the process, Daura, the Republican, lost his Spanish citizenship. Five months later Franco's ally Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, and began a new conflict, World War II. In July, however, the Dauras had returned to Virginia, to the Rockbridge Baths property that was their wedding present. Louise was ill and longed to spend time with her family. Realizing that France would inevitably be subjected to the destructive combat that he had learned to despise in Spain, the Dauras decided to wait out the war in Virginia. In 1943, Pierre and Martha became naturalized U.S. citizens.

In Rockbridge Baths, Pierre turned to the landscape with enthusiasm akin to that which he had known at St. Cirq before the Spanish war. He wrote,

. . . this village . . . produced on me the impression of a very wild nearly savage country, grandiose like nothing I had ever known, like nothing I had ever seen. Yet in some places, when I came to forget that I was in America, in Virginia, I couldn=t help but think of some places in the Lot [valley], in France, in St. Cirq, some places in Catalonia, Montsegur, the Pyrenees. . . .

Daura sought the friendship of his neighbors in the county as he had done with the villagers of St. Cirq. He wrote, "When they go hunting, I go; when they kill hogs, I go; when they shuck corn, I go; it is in this way that I get to know them. Otherwise I would live with them for years and still be a stranger." The "spirit of peace and calm" that Daura had discovered in St. Cirq was reborn in Virginia and found expression in his landscapes and portraits. Peaceful religious themes appeared in his art. Daura painted, he produced book illustrations, he sculpted, and he taught art, first at Lynchburg College and then at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, where the family set up a third residence. The acclaimed international artist Cy Twombly, when a Lexington teenager, took his first painting lessons from Daura.

Pierre and Louise had found a welcoming environment in the people and landscape of Virginia. But in Rockbridge Baths and even in Lynchburg, Pierre was isolated from the art world he had known in Europe. Following the close of the war, in 1947, he and Louise were ready to return to St. Cirq, at least for a visit, to continue restoration of the house and to renew the life that they had known there. On the way, Pierre described the facades of buildings in London looking "like phantoms" ("but there is still a fierce pride even in the ruins"), and equally disturbing was the atmosphere in Paris ("the tragedy they have lived shows on their faces . . . and I cannot assist"). He discovered "through the French countryside ruins everywhere." The house at St. Cirq had been unattended for nearly a decade and its furnishings had disappeared during the war. Many visits would be required to return the building to its 1939 condition. Time also would be needed for Daura to paint again with inspiration the village and the landscape on the river Lot.

In 1950, at age fifty-four, Daura increasingly worried "that life is shrinking fast . . . and that I would not like to cease to be without having some illusion that I have accomplished something worthwhile as an artist." A full-time teaching load so consumed his time in Lynchburg that finally he resigned. He would spend more time in St. Cirq. He would revive his art through camaraderie with his old friends and new neighbors (including the famed Surrealist poet André Breton) and through travel to Italy and Belgium. Completion of the house at St. Cirq brought fulfillment, as did the artist's lengthened visits there. In 1955, Daura suddenly felt revitalized as an artist. He started to paint with brighter colors that he applied with a vibrancy akin to the energy he now perceived in nature. He explained,

I just woke up one morning and said life is wonderful and I tried to put that into each picture. . . . Last summer in St Cirq, while facing the glowing tower of the ageless church, the tower and the sky spoke to me -- such rich, vivid language -- which I tried to translate into form and color. I had not painted them for many years; this time we found each other, our passion for each other renewed, bursting exuberantly. In the paintings, I wanted to tell everybody how wonderful I felt each day, to express my wonder at the blue sky, the white, the gold, the pinks of the stone, the liquid ruby of the roofs so steep. Pierre, be happy, sing, sing that beauty is life, paint, paint with that light that is supreme joy, give it to your friends and loved ones, let them share in your boundless happiness.

Louise told friends, "Pierre is painting landscapes every day in our wonderful warm sunshine, landscapes very different from those he used to paint of St. Cirq. He . . . whistles while he works and throws on color with abandon, happily painting just as he wants to."

Throughout the 1950s, winters were spent in Lynchburg, with the summer months enjoyed in either Rockbridge Baths or St. Cirq. In 1960, however, at Rockbridge Baths and beside the bubbling pool, the Dauras completed a new, year-round house, starkly geometric in its proportions and modern in its materials. There, Pierre remained prolific with his art, producing hundreds of paintings and drawings, along with occasional sculptures. The quantity of this output is explained by his adeptness at producing work of remarkably high quality with seemingly little effort. Painting, drawing, and sculpting had become almost second nature to him. At some point during these years, Daura's paintings took on a new goal, to rekindle the worship of nature, an attitude that had been largely forgotten in America since the nineteenth century:

I am sure that though they [the residents of Rockbridge County] know nothing of art, they have a true and naive joy of recognizing their fields and barns on my canvases. It seems to me . . . an important contribution to help these rural people discover the beauty of the land where they live. I do not believe we should neglect anything to inspire men with the love of their native soil.

As the years went on, Daura examined himself in self-portraits. Louise judged these "the best barometer of how he really feels." His affection for his wife and daughter, and for his own lost mother, were always near the surface. They came to the fore when he repeatedly returned to the mother and child theme ("it is always the mother and child -- nobody has been able to explain the gift she gives us"). Following Louise's death in 1972, Pierre persevered with life. He continued to paint and to exhibit, and he made one final trip to St. Cirq. On his own death in 1976, a few weeks short of his eightieth birthday, an editorial in the Lynchburg News suggested that Daura's gifts of humanity and talent had not gone unappreciated in Virginia. It stated: "He was a human being of consummate compassion, a rare quality when coupled with a magnificent intellect. He saw many things but he also saw through them to the hearts and minds and souls of men."

There had been countless exhibitions of Daura's work throughout the post-World War II era, particularly at Virginia colleges and museums, but the artist never engaged a dealer to search out sales and notoriety ("I have never wanted money, or fame or the things of this world; just to find a way to paint"). For that reason his name today is less well known than the quality of his output warrants. Only in 1999 and 2001, when art historians Teresa Macià and Virginia Irby Davis published thorough biographies, did efforts to improve Daura's stature as an artist begin in earnest.[2] Also in recent years, exhibitions of Daura's paintings have been presented at a number of museums in America and Europe where Martha Daura has generously given literally hundreds of her father's works. Many of the shows have been accompanied by short catalogs, of which the present volume is the latest contribution. Virginia Davis actually started her research on Daura long ago, two years before he died. In 1974, she interviewed the painter, discovering for herself his "fiery Catalan energy and strength of character," and she "soon came under the spell of this delightful Spanish gentleman with the merry eyes and sparkling wit":

One needs only to go into a gallery exhibiting Pierre Daura's works to realize that these watercolors, graphic, oils and sculptures were created by a true artist -- a man well aware of all the subtle nuances of his world, who made a serious study of the great traditions of European art of the past and learned from them, but never allowed them to over-influence his own creative genius. Above all, he was a man who loved life and humanity and expressed that love in the luminous lyricism of his paintings.

Daura's love of life and humanity is evident in the pages that follow. Along with his Virginia scenes, a sampling of the artist's European work is included, so that his stylistic development and biography can more easily be traced. Many of the Virginia scenes have never before been published.

 

Notes

1. Much of the information that follows, including statements by Daura, is taken from Virginia Irby Davis, A Biography of Catalan-American Artist Pierre Daura, 1896­1976: The Man and His Art (Edwin Mellen Press: Lewiston [N.Y.], Queenston [Ontario, Canada], and Lampeter [Ceredigion, Wales], 2001).

2. Teresa Macià, Pierre Daura, 1896­1976 (Àmbit: Barcelona, 1999).

 

About the author

William M. S. Rasmussen is Lora M. Robins Curator at the Virginia Historical Society.


Resource Library editor's notes

This essay is included in the catalogue for the exhibition Pierre Daura's Vision of Virginia at the Virginia Historical Society September 16, 2006 - January 14, 2007. The catalogue is titled ""THE BEAUTY OF THE LAND" Pierre Daura's Vision of Virginia", ISBN 0-945015-26-7.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Carol Anne Baker of the Virginia Historical Society for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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