Jean Louis Gervat Renaissance Man

By Marie Therese Martin

“Notes from the journal of Doctor Edward Martin during his visit to the South of France in 1956 provide some of the information used in this narrative.  In many intimate conversations with Heloise, the sister of the artist, Martin was able to extract information and write a personal account of the artist’s life.  Gervat’s journal, along with paintings in oil, watercolor, and pencil drawings, his personal journal and artifacts are presented in a collection of the artists’ work.”  

Jean Louis Gervat was born during a time that would see a great art movement take form and leave in its wake many of the most esteemed names the art world offered, before or since.  As his story unfolds, one of the giants of this early style of expressionist art (that we now refer to as impressionism) would wander throughout the pages of Jean Louis’s life. He would ignite a flame in the young Gervat, and inspire a simple and unique style of artistry. 

On one of those afternoons, while deeply engrossed in sketching, Jean Louis was startled to see a kindly old gentleman approach him. The gentleman introduced himself as the artist, Johan Barthold Jongkind, an extraordinary Dutch painter and printmaker who painted marine landscapes in a free manner, Jongkind left Paris to seek inspiration in the unspoiled beauty of the countryside surrounding la Plaine de la Bieve. Jean Louis was fourteen when he met Jongkind.  After observing the boy and his work, Jongkind told him that if he wished, he would meet him here every day and teach him how to paint with watercolors.

Whenever possible, they took to the fields before dawn to catch the first rays of the morning sun and spent the rest of the day roaming the fields together. During this process a young Gervat became deeply attached to Jongkind and the two became inseparable. It was here that Jongkind himself painted with watercolor and in a style that was fresh and new and different from the way he painted in Paris.

Unlocking the past: the story of Jean Louis Gervat


Martin would describe his visit with Heloise in this way, “As we sat by a cast iron wood stove, smoke-stained timbers flickered in the light of the great stone fireplace.   Heloise remembered how their lives were shared in the same ancestral home where they were born.  She spoke softly, remembering her younger brother as a delicate and sensitive youth who playfully ran throughout the family farmhouse with her.”   

In her senior years, Heloise remembered her brother as a growing boy endowed with a superior intellect that was apparent from an early age. 

Jean Louis Gervat was born in St. Simeon-de-Brassieux, Isere, France on November 30, 1867 in an ancient stone house. He came from a long line of hardy French farmers who tended sheep and cattle at the edge of the magnificent Plaine de la Bievre referred to as the “cold lands.”  He was a dreamer, fascinated by everything around him; rocks, trees, and flowers. All of nature was his sounding board but these same sounds that awakened his senses were viewed as uncommon in a boy so young. These attributes were quickly recognized by his teacher, Brother Honorat, who enjoyed the many sketches the boy made of his natural surroundings. It was, in fact, Brother Honorat who suggested to Jean Louis’s parents the possibility of him studying draftsmanship or engineering.   With this in mind in 1877, Gervat was tutored in geometrical drawing.  Many of these preliminary sketches can be found in his journal of writings, drawings and poetry that are in the collection. He studied at night by the only light he had, that of a small Betty lamp.  Commonly made of iron or brass, a Betty lamp was most often used in the home to offer a small source of light.  It burned fish oil with a wick made of twisted cloth.   

Pages from the Gervat journal with his “Betty” lamp.

At the edge of the magnificent lowlands called the “Bievre,” or the cold lands, this landscape extends miles wide and stretches out to the horizon.  Its flat contour was protected on either side by mountains as it gave way to gently rolling meadows in others.  St. Simeon lies directly across the plain from La Cote St. Andre where a distant outline of red tiled roofs identifies the region and punctuates a brooding landscape.  

Artists paint what they see in their surroundings.  A young Gervat would do the same, painting the morning mists that greeted him as he tended sheep in the early morning of his day.  Low lying clouds created a landscape to the young painter with an ominous force.  Mystic is what Heloise called Gervat’s mood and critics would often repeat the same word in describing his art.  The atmosphere in this low country was charged with a sense of intimacy instilling in this sensitive boy a desire to express himself in that most universal of all art forms, painting. 

Described as shy, Jean Louis was uneasy in a crowd.  He did not care for athletics and his insatiable search for knowledge set him aside from those his own age.  He abhorred violence in all forms and never wanted to harm any living thing.  Louis could usually be found in the fields sketching or painting.

According to Heloise, Jongkind said to Gervat, “Meet me here each day, and I’ll teach you how to paint a landscape.”  Madame Gervat was troubled that such a man whose reputation for drinking was well known had become so close to her only son. When Gervat brought Jongkind home, Madam Gervat did not share the same rapture of Jongkind as her son.  His reputation as a drunkard had preceded him and she would scold Jongkind on many occasions forbidding him to ever come near her home or her son in an intoxicated state.  According to Heloise, he never did and he honored her mother in that way. 

Gervat’s mother also nurtured Jean Louis and his interest in painting. Daily, she would wash large jars which she then filled with fresh milk to sell.  As she delivered them to a nearby silk factory, she gathered scraps of discarded colored cloth so that her son could extract color from these remnants and use them in his early watercolors.  Although a most unsatisfactory material, it allowed him to add color to his early sketches. 

Poor as the proverbial church mouse, a young Gervat made the most of what he had. His father was often exasperated to find him sitting in the fields sketching or painting while his schoolwork and chores awaited.

Martin scribbled in his notes, “I sat in the same chair and at the same table where Jongkind sat.  It was an experience I will never forget.”

“Poor, poor, Jongkind,”  Heloise would repeat over and over again.  She described him being in ill health and wearing tattered clothing, but always wearing a tall hat.

He often did not shave and his disheveled appearance did little to console Madam Gervat’s opinion of him.  The boy became deeply attached to the old man as they roamed the countryside together looking for landscapes to paint.

Oil on canvas

“Be yourself, Louis, and no one else.  Paint as you see and feel.”

According to Heloise, Jongkind’s advice to Gervat was to, “Be yourself, Louis, and no one else.  Paint as you see and feel.”  Gervat took that advice seriously and painted in a naïve and primitive style that changed very little throughout his entire lifetime.  Had he remained a student of Jongkind for a longer period of time, one wonders what the effect might have been.  In an attempt to separate the old man from the boy, and to discourage Gervat’s interest in art, his parents sent him to the seminary at La Cote St. Andre.  Jongkind was then forbidden to see the boy. That order was rescinded with Gervat’s pleading and a promise that Jongkind and art would never interfere or separate him from the priesthood.  Prior to Gervat’s admission to the seminary, Jongkind proclaimed one afternoon on viewing the scene and admiring it, that henceforth all should know that “Gervat was his student and he would make him a great artist.”  Jongkind felt that Gervat’s watercolors excelled his own.  “Whether they did or not makes little difference.” Martin would surmise.  “I am simply reporting the story as Heloise told me.  Certainly, Jongkind’s water colors in his last days around La Cote St. Andre are like those of Gervat and far different from his work done in Paris or his native Holland.”

Martin further recorded that Heloise showed him a painting of a shepherd and sheep in a snowstorm which Jongkind signed on the reverse. 

As Gervat’s attention became more focused on the priesthood, he painted less.  When Gervat was ordained, Jongkind wanted to call him “father” but Gervat would not hear of it.  He was deeply saddened by Jongkind’s age and the eventual decline of his health.  When Gervat was transferred to the seminary in Rome it was during that interval that Jongkind died.  Gervat never got over this loss and never forgot his dear friend during prayers at his daily masses.  

Oil on canvas

They were finally separated, this legendary artist whom Manet called “The father of impressionism” and his young student. Edouard Manet regarded Jongkind as a forerunner to the art movement later called “Impressionism.” Abbe Jean Louis Gervat was the only known student of the Dutch Master.

Prior to Gervat’s admission to the seminary, Jongkind proclaimed one afternoon on viewing the scene and admiring it, that henceforth all should know that Gervat was his student and he would make him a great artist. Jongkind felt that Gervat’s watercolors excelled his own.  “Whether they did or not makes little difference,” Martin states.  “I am simply reporting the story as Heloise told me.”  Certainly, Jongkind’s water colors in his last days around La Cote St. Andre are like those of Gervat and far different from his work done in Paris or his native Holland. Martin further writes that Heloise showed him a painting of a shepherd and sheep in a snowstorm which Jongkind signed on the reverse. 

When Gervat brought Jongkind home, Madam Gervat did not share the rapture of her son for Jongkind as his reputation as a drunkard had preceded him.  According to Heloise, he never did. It was more the fear that her son might take to the habits of this man and if not that, he might go so far as to become an artist.  That was a most horrible thought to Madame Gervat, who in viewing this old man with tattered clothing and a small unkept beard was hardly the picture of success.  Heloise tells of his visits to her home and of his impossible use of the French language. In spite of it, he was always kind and polite.  She described his tall hat and a high collared shirt that he usually wore.  He would tell of his hard life and wanderings and expressed his desire to make Jean Louis a great painter.

Gervat’s parents were not at all interested in young Louis becoming an artist, but allowed their son to continue associating with his dear friend.  Heloise beamed with joy as she related how Jongkind instructed young Gervat.  With brushes in his coat pocket and pigments from a tube, he would spit into his hand with gusto and quickly sketch out a scene remarking “that is how you paint a watercolor.

“Never join a group or a school of painters.” Jongkind warned Gervat.  “Paint what you see and feel!” 

And so, his pupil did exactly that for many years to come.

On one of their fireside chats,  Heloise brought out Jongkind’s easel which he gave to Gervat.  It must still remain in the old Gervat homestead along with a fine pencil sketch of a woman carrying a load of faggots over a small stone bridge. 

On one occasion, Heloise brought out a small canvas of Gervat’s depicting a shepherd and sheep in a snowstorm signed on the reverse by Jongkind.  This was one of Jongkind’s favorite paintings done by Gervat. One evening he signed it saying to young Louis, “Let everyone know that by signing this painting, I accept you as my student.”  Young Louis prized this painting most dearly. 

Soon Louis would be separated from his old friend except on holidays and vacations.  He was enrolled at the seminary at La Cote St Andre where he remained for some six years.  Jongkind was seen trailing behind the young students as they would promenade on Thursdays.  He would attempt to see his young friend.  He was forbidden to speak to young Jean Louis at this time having the head of the seminary forbid Gervat to associate with Jongkind lest he influence him to give up his studies to become an artist.  Gervat promised to never leave the priesthood if he could retain Jongkind as his friend.  And he did.  They painted together every vacation period and holiday.

In 1890 Gervat was sent to a French Seminary in Rome and he did not return home for several years.  In the interim, Jongkind died.  Heloise tells how someone came to the old farmhouse to tell them that they wouldn’t see the old painter any more, for he was dead.  Abbe Gervat was grief stricken a year later when he returned to his home to find that his old friend and Master painter was dead.  He visited Jongkind’s gravesite daily and always remembered him in his daily prayers at Mass.  It was touching to have Heloise relate this story.

On Gervat’s admission to the seminary in Rome, his keen intellect once more asserted itself and his professors predicted a bright future for him in the ecclesiastical field.  He earned Doctorate degrees in Theology, Philosophy and Canon law.  He was offered a professorship in Rome and the same upon returning home to the Sorbonne.  Both were turned down as he requested to be sent home as a Curate to the land of his birth.  Before returning home, he visited Venice, Florence and Naples dividing his spare time equally between archeology and art.  

Heloise states that most of the paintings that Gervat completed during his Italian sojourn were burned by the artist.  There is evidence that some of these were of female forms which Gervat felt unbecoming to a man of his calling. 

His good friend, the art critic Rodmaer remarked:

“Of the numerous canvases he completed in Italy, he burnt the greater part.  We can only regret it, as those that are left to us are most interesting.”  A “Vendor of flowers”painted at Tschia, and “A Venderess of Oranges” painted at Castella Mare in 1892 show the young man dazzled by the Mediterranean light; and already, one feels the research of the universe over the local color.  There are two beautiful pages, rich in color and life, where certain researchers of polytonality and bearings, announce the virtuosity of the artist.  A few rare designs of this period show what a rare and rich symphony, he could derive from a woman’s body”

“Heloise denied such paintings ever existed and I never saw any of them other than the first two described which are pictured.” Martin reflected.

On returning home, Gervat was named rector of St. Nizier.  He next served at Brfessius, and Curenc in that order and where he remained for 17 years.

A look at the grown man over the years is a most fascinating study.  He was an intellectual of the highest order, who spoke French, Italian, German, Spanish, English and Sanskrit, fluently.  He was an authority on geology, etymology, archeology and paleontology.  Specimens were brought to him from miles around and universities marveled at his command of the subjects.  For such knowledge, he was offered a seat at the Sorbonne which he refused much preferring to remain with his beloved country folk in the land of the Dauphine. 

In 1903, Jack London published his work, Call of the Wild.  Local legend would tell that Gervat was obsessed with this work and called to paint the wolf as the most famed French poet, DeVigny himself, would choose to write poetry about this most noble creature. 

Like many great men, his capacity for work seemed endless.  His average working day was said to be 18 or 20 hours and he filled each day fully caring for his parish, reading prolifically, and painting.  His friends compared him to the men of the Renaissance, like Da-Vinci, who was a painter, a man of science and a poet.  Gervat was all of these and his poetry alone is a project in itself for someone interested in discovering one of France’s great poets.  

The French poet, Paul Claudel, in letters to Heloise referred to Gervat as the poet artist of France. He was engaged in research on a book for a proposed work on Gervat’s writings when he died in 1954. 

Gervat never forgot the advice of Jongkind in painting nature. “To seize it in flight in a few rapid motions before toiling at it to give the work its definite aspect”. 

From a technical point of view, he returned only a certain way of describing in a few rapid but suggestive touches, the essentials of a landscape.  His work is free of the weakness of the impressionists and retains a solidity and volume lost by this group.  Somewhere between the dramatic and threatening skies and the solid earth, which he understood so well, stands his peasant, toiling, leaning and hurrying to and from, helpless in the face of such power to alter or control it.

In spite of his lifelong affliction with bronchial asthma from which he suffered much, he always retained good humor and a broad smile greeted everyone.  He loved everything in nature from his peasant neighbor to the smallest flower that sprung from the sod of the cold lands.  He knew the smell of newly turned soil, every blade of grass, each insect, the snowflakes, the poplar bending in the wind, the blazing fields of oats, the grapes and vines, the hanging clouds and the clinging mists.  All were friends of his and as the earth, a part of Gervat’s art.  

His fields, his farmers, his red tiled roofs, all expressed in a simple beauty engrained with sincerity.  The landscapes are everywhere and yet nowhere.  They express daily joys and sorrows and as one critic wrote:  “He goes slowly but does not delay.  What is important is the shepherd he plants there.  It is not the form of his nose nor the color of the hair but the curve of the entire body leaning in front of his staff: it is the big construction where the body props itself solidly against the earth. Over all the winds howl and the trees dance in an often eerie and fantastic ballet.” 

In spite of his obvious qualities, Gervat was reluctant to speak of himself and remained a most humble and sincere man throughout his life.

He despised equity, jurisprudence and the military in all and anything which oppressed the poor.  He gave his all to those he served and would tell his dear sister Heloise, on many occasions.  “Give this food to the poor, it is too much for us.  They come first who are more miserable than we.” Gervat would repeat to Heloise.

He inwardly suffered the pain and torment of others.

In May of 1930 in a letter addressed to his good friend Abel Van Rohnear, the art critic,who sought to make Gervat’s work known, he claimed his talent to be not worth the effort.  He characterized himself as simply “A poor devil of a Dauphinois painter, who has no other merit than to have been the benevolent student of the unfortunate Jongkind.”

Because of this humility, Gervat exhibited little in his lifetime and did so only with reluctance.  He was exhibited on occasions with his master and records document occasional exhibits in Paris, Marseilles, Lyon and Grenoble, in France.  Posthumosly he was exhibited in Germany and the United States. In the United States, he was exhibited at Colby College and at the Farnsworth Museum.

To be sure, he knew of the great artists of his time but was not a part of their groups.  He enjoyed their work and was most fond of Le domaine Rousseaus who influenced him to a minor degree.  The coloring and boldness of Van Gogh are apparent in some of his oils but in style and technique he is Gervat and no one else.  His works are readily recognizable and unmistakable.

In 1927 Gervat was given a parish at Nayarey and died there on August 28, 1930 in the arms of his beloved sister Heloise.  He apparently contracted pneumonia and, weakened from his long hours and years of hard work, expired without a complaint in the faith of his father.

Shortly following his death, Heloise found the following lines written on a page and inserted in his prayer missal “The Wolfes’ Death by DeVigney”: 

“Only silence is great, all else is weakness.
Energetically do your long and arduous task
In the path where fate has called you
Then after, as I suffer and die without speaking.”

So, he died and among his many writings Martin found the following last will of Gervat which he brought back. “Let my funeral, in the country where I shall die, be the simplest possible, and let my body be carried by truck directly to the common burying ground of the cemetery of St. Simeon de Brasseux.  Let there be planted on the grave a small white pine cross.  No flowers, no wreaths, no need to maintain it.”  – Dated at Sol Laurent in Roans, the 27th of February, 1927

In his book, FLORILEGE DE PEINTURE DAUPHINOISE, Maurice Wantellet writes about the Century of the Dauphinoise artist. Included is a chapter dedicated to the paintings of Abbe Gervat.