His talent was a remarkable fit in the society of his time. Curious, gregarious and a real gossip, Jacques-Émile Blanche did not require those attributes to climb in the mondaine Paris of fin-de-siècle. His pedigree would have provided adequate impetus on the way to success. Son of the respected docteur Émile Blanche, an early mental health practitioner and owner of a clinic of renown among musicians, writers and intellectuals, he spent his infancy among the resident patients, nurses and a variety of tutors away from the structured discipline of schooling.
Blanche knew, nevertheless, obstacles to his vocational pursuits. His training level in painting was limited, having only received some lessons from Henri Gervex, a society painter. Moreover, it was hard at a time when post-impressionists were roller coasting the art world to make a name for oneself without embracing the new, and by then popular, current without the zeal of a convert as most of his contemporary colleagues did.
Still, polite society was increasingly adopting the role of portrait painting as a tool of prestige and recognition, beyond the confined use artists and patrons made of it in the previous centuries. Anybody with a reputation had to have a portrait painted. John Singer Sargent was one of his most popular practitioners and although he snobbishly defined a portrait as “a painting where there is always something not quite right about the mouth”, he knew as well as Blanche, who happened to be his friend, the social impact of what they were doing.
His gifts separated him from the voguish society painter. It was no coincidence that he spent long afternoons with Renoir at the age of eighteen and bought much of Manet’s work. In his portraits he uses a subtle brushstroke and evokes a confident theatrical aura, in harmony with what he perceived of the personality of the sitter. His mastery of the brush was only part of his recognized talents: he wrote extensively chronicling the artwork of other colleagues for several magazines and journals and publishing books on art history.
A professed Anglophile, his home near Dieppe welcomed artists, painters and writers from both sides of the Channel. The list of sitters would cover the intellectual and cultural life of both France and England in the years of the Belle Époque: Marcel Proust, Sergei Diaghilev, Jean Cocteau, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, James McNeil Whistler and Roger Fry were just a few of those he succeeded in making his friends and his objects of study.
Proust once remarked of his friend, ”The danger for Blanche was that, albeit elegant and spiritual, he dissipated his life in mondaine pursuits”. This observation seems prophetic as Blanche was to remain a semi-forgotten figure in the pantheon of 20 century French painting. A gilded life is not exempt from burdens.