My favourite room in Manchester Art Gallery is the one devoted to the French artist, Adolphe Valette, who came from his home in St Etienne to England in 1904 and, from 1906 to 1920, taught at Manchester School of Art where he influenced LS Lowry, his most famous pupil. The room displays a superb group of impressionistic paintings of Edwardian Manchester, painted between 1908 and 1913, which represent Valette’s most significant artistic achievement.
Now the Lowry in Salford has mounted a near-definitive exhibition, Adolphe Valette: A Pioneer of Impressionism in Manchester, that fills in the background to those atmospheric paintings in Manchester Art Gallery and traces his career, both before and after he lived in Manchester.
The exhibition curator Cecilia Lyon has managed to bring together some of his best known works from neighbouring galleries (including several from Manchester Art Gallery) alongside loans from private collections and several never-before-seen works. She explains Valette’s importance:
He came to Manchester in 1905 and brought the syllabus of his French experience and pioneered Impressionism in Manchester at the time with these huge oil paintings. He painted urban architecture, waterways, industry, the pollution and smog. He was the first painter to paint Manchester, the first to see the beauty in the hard working city. But Valette was also an extremely modest person and he didn’t write manifestos or letters to other artists. So it remains a great mystery what drew him to Manchester.
Adolphe Valette (1876-1942) was born in 1876 in the industrial town of St Etienne, and came to England in 1904. He settled in Manchester and studied at the Manchester School of Art and taught there from 1906-1920. Amongst his students was LS Lowry.
When Adolphe Valette was an art student in France, the Impressionist movement was at its height. By the end of the 19th century art galleries and collectors all over Europe were buying paintings by Monet, Renoir and others. When Valette arrived in Manchester he brought first hand knowledge of Impressionist painting with him which he was able to share with his students, including LS Lowry. ‘Forain, Monet, Degas and the French Impressionists were his gods’, as one of his students put it.
It was between 1908 and 1913 that he completed his major Impressionist Manchester cityscapes, the first of which was ‘Manchester Ship Canal’ (top), actually of the canal in Salford. ‘Manchester Ship Canal and Warehouses’ (1908, below) is his second earliest known dated view of Manchester. Also exhibited for the first time is an oil painting of ‘Plymouth Grove, July 1909’ – this was the location of Valette’s first home in Manchester.
Valette pioneered Impressionism in Manchester with a series of large oil paintings depicting urban architecture, waterways, industry and the dynamism of the city, captured in atmospheric variations of light, fog (below) and haze. He was the first artist to put the city centre stage in his paintings and commented, ‘There is a beauty in Manchester’.
Exhibitions of Valette’s work were held in this period at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and at the Society of Modern Painters in Manchester, which he co-founded in 1912.
Valette’s early fascination with Impressionism was probably reinforced by a visit to Manchester City Art Gallery, where from December 1907 to January 1908 a stunning array of paintings by Monet, Degas, Pissarro and others were exhibited.
On 18 March 1908, Valette produced his first Manchester Impressionist painting depicting Manchester Ship Canal. He fully understood the Impressionist practice of painting en plein air, capturing an immediate visual impression of a scene and rendering the exact effect of light.
In both his Manchester cityscapes, Valette was fascinated by the English fog and its capacity to transform an everyday waterway or cityscape into a slightly surreal scene (as in some works by Whistler, Monet or Turner). He also understood the Impressionists’ visible brushwork and innovative approach to laying the paint unmixed on to the canvas.
Valette excelled at pochades – small sketches painted outdoors and intended either as preparation for a larger painting or as paintings in their own right. Two striking examples on show for the first time are ‘Manchester Suburban View’ (above) and ‘Wintry View of Manchester’.
Valette’s talent, however, goes beyond his Manchester cityscapes. He was a skilled painter of still life, portraits and the contrasting sun-drenched landscape of southern France. The exhibition begins with a collection of self portraits and portraits of family members. While in Manchester, Valette married his first wife – one of his students, Gabriela de Bolivar, of Venezuelan nationality. There are portraits of Gabriela, along with her mother, Valette’s brother and his son, Pierre. Gabriela died in 1917 and two years later he married a fellow french national, Andree Pallez, a lecturer in French at Manchester University.
Alongside the city views there are several portraits of friends and neighbours, including this one, of Ahmed Loufti, an Egyptian living in Manchester. The caption notes that Valette ‘enjoyed Manchester’s cosmopolitan atmosphere’ – a clue, maybe, as to the reason why Valette came to Manchester, which remains unexplained.
Soon after his arrival in Manchester, Valette enrolled as a student in the evening classes at the Municipal School
of Art at All Saints, now part of Manchester Metropolitan University. His talent was quickly recognised and he was encouraged to apply for the position of Master of Painting and Drawing. Valette accepted this post ‘on the condition that he should teach the pupils by actually painting with them.
He was reputedly an inspiring teacher, and his students – the best known of whom was LS Lowry – both liked and admired him. The exhibition includes many drawings made by Valette during his classes, alongside several made by LS Lowry as a student. Affectionately nicknamed ‘Mr Monsieur’ by his students, Valette taught many disciplines over the next fourteen years including life classes, drawing and etching.
Lowry recognised Valette’s skill in teaching life drawing, and was influenced by his enthusiasm for the French Impressionists. On his painting ‘Country Lane’, Lowry commented, ‘I was going through my Impressionist period’. Valette’s strongest influence may have been on Lowry’s choice of subject matter. As the exhibition guide notes:
After Valette, Lowry was the second major painter in the North West to focus on the industrial scene. He recalled that his ‘first idea of doing it’ was ‘about 1912 or 1913’ (when Valette had already exhibited many of his major ‘Manchester-scapes’). ‘I was taught then by a gentleman by the name of Valette. He was what I would call a typical product of the Impressionist school but I didn’t want to paint like the Impressionist school’. While Valette painted Manchester, celebrating the architectural magnificence of the industrial buildings, the vibrancy of the city or the languor of the canals, Lowry depicted the industrial landscape and the mills of Salford and Greater Manchester in a more stylised manner, with greater attention to the people in the streets. Lowry gradually found his own artistic style and the influence of Valette, still to be seen in the pastels ‘Coming from the Mill’ and ‘The Lodging House’, started to wane. ‘I could have been subconsciously influenced by Valette’, he admitted, grudgingly, in later years. By the mid-1920s, Valette’s influence became even less pronounced, with Lowry eventually declaring, ‘We did not see eye to eye at all about my paintings; I did not show them to him again.’
In 1928 Valette left Manchester, due to ill health and following the death of his mother. He moved permanently to Blace in the Beaujolais region of France, settling in a cottage which he inherited from his mother and where he had spent many holidays (below). He frequented local artistic circles and, like Van Gogh after his move from the north to Arles, new colour and light bursts from his paintings.
As in Manchester, Valette liked to paint in the open air and set up his easel wherever he went. Again like Van Gogh, there are many paintings here which expressively capture the movement of a farm animal or the posture of the field workers in the local vineyards.
Valette painted the landscapes of the villages of this region north of Lyon, producing studies of the field labourers, men and women bent over their tools, working in the fields and vineyards.
In this period Valette also produced expressive portraits of friends and neighbours, and of Maria Lafond, his housekeeper. He died in 1942, aged 65.
Until recently, it proved impossible to trace many of Valette’s paintings, though their existence was known from their titles, listed in old exhibition catalogues, and, in some cases, photographs and oil sketches. As part of the research for this exhibition, a public appeal was launched by The Lowry asking for owners of works by Valette to come forward.
Among many interesting discoveries, one preparatory sketch for a lost painting – ‘Old Peasant Smoking Pipe’ – came to light and is displayed alongside a photograph of the finished work for the first time. Another recent discovery has been the location of the graves of Valette’s first wife and son in the churchyard of St Margaret’s Church in Prestwich.
This unfinished self-portrait, painted in 1912 when Valette was in his thirties, shows the artist as a dapper, intense young man with a fashionable waxed moustache. Dramatically lit from behind, it conveys the image of a romantic artist, whose
effect on his students, including LS Lowry, was considerable, and whose legacy, this exhibition reveals, consists of far more than those magnificent impressionistic townscapes in Manchester Art Gallery.