Jean Berque (1896 – 1954)
Jean-Jules-Paul Berque was born in Reims in 1896, the son of a managing director of a small Champagne house, Maison Ernest Irroy. He left Reims in 1916 to study art at the Académie Ranson in Paris. There he studied under Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier, and Felix Vallotton, artists who had formed the core of the art movement ‘Les Nabis’.
Jean Berque exhibited at the Salon d’Automne between 1924- 1928, and at the Salon des Tuilleries between 1927 and 1934. In 1922 he was commissioned to paint a ‘Madonna and Child’ and the ‘Stations of the Cross’ for the newly built St Nicaise Church in Reims, inaugurated in 1925 to glowing critical acclaim. He travelled a great deal at this time, spending long periods in the Var region of France, painting landscapes of the surrounding area, and also nudes and portraits.
In 1924 he exhibited eight paintings in a group exhibition entitled ‘Premier Groupe’ at the Galerie Eugene Druet in Paris along with artists, Maurice Denis, Georges d’Espagnat, Henri Labasque, Aristide Maillol, Theo van Rysselberge, Paul Sérusier, Felix Vallotton and Louis Valtat. He also exhibited during this period at the Galerie Jacques Rodrigues and Galerie Marcel Bernheim., both in Paris. In 1931 Galerie Renaissance in Paris held a very successful one man show. In an article written about the exhibition by the playwright Henri-Rene Lenormand, he wrote:
“The non-specialised eye can discover a love of forms and light, a pleasure to paint, a harmonious concern for expression through colour, which must place him, sheltered from the hazards of fashion and speculation, at the forefront of painters of his generation. His predilection for grey is obvious. Grey, not as an excuse for uncertain vision or indulgent reveries, but as a source of rest and balance, as a sign of sweetness and nobility of the soul”.
Jean Berque was also very well regarded as an illustrator, working on many books for the publishing company Editions Gonin. This was for both contemporary works by authors such as Andre Gide, Henry de Monthelant, Andre Maurois, Paul Claudel, and Anna De Noailles, and also for classical French writers such as Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Pierre de Ronsard.
Jean Berque continued illustrating books throughout the 1940’s, particularly for Colette, who became a great friend. He also designed the theatre sets for an Alfred de Muset play, and worked on posters for ‘Perrier’. He was made a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 1953.
He died in 1954.