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 Paul Jean Martel  (1878 - 1944)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania / Belgium      Known for: portrait and impressionist landscape painting

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Ad Code: 4
Paul Jean Martel
An example of work by Paul Jean Martel
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following, submitted November 2005, is from Maclovia Martel, gran-daughter of the artist.

“Has it ever occurred to you that a photograph is the unrealest of things?  The camera sees its subject so much faster than the eye can see it – that the result is something that you never have seen.  Then there are “the chemists” who want to paint the flesh of the female so you could eat it with a spoon.  Of course you can’t do it.  You don’t eat paint with a spoon.  You can’t paint light.  You can’t paint odor.  You can’t paint touch.  You can just paint paint.”

-    Paul Jean Martel, Philadelphia Record, 1943

Paul Jean Martel, a Post Impressionist, was born in Laaken, Belgium.  In 1897, he entered the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles.  He studied under Stallaert and Van der Stappen, who was director of the Academie at that time.  He was in the company of artists like Lemmen, Theo van Rysselberghe, and Verhaegen.   While at the academy one of his works was nominated for the Prix de Rome but was vandalized the night before the judging and had to be withdrawn.

The rigorous academic training he received at the Academie is reflected in his official portraits.  However, his interest lay primarily in the use of colour, and the use of colour to suggest the form.  Influenced by Impressionists, he blended objects into their reflections, creating a luminous quality that animated his canvas. 

In a later interview he was quoted as saying, “you see, colour to me, is the soul of painting.  When I want to represent something on canvas, I put side by side strokes of colour in values that my eye can absorb as they reverberate from an artistically interesting object.  Colour is first and form is second.  I would like to describe my work as two dimensional art.”

In Martel's painting,, there is no definite outline, no strong contour, only strokes of colour which give form.  Not only does he give form, but suggest movement; he creates an illusion of movement.  A fine white veil seems to cover his works while contours and shapes appear in quiet, soft colours that flow into peaceful and serene togetherness.  The artist attributes this to the silvery mist, which covers the landscape of northern France and Flanders.

“In Belgium,” he said, “as we grew up, we learned to see things through the dampness of an atmosphere heavily laden with humidity and sun.  We Flemish people have always painted the colour values in our air – in that respect I believe I follow the Flemish tradition.”  Later on he started to give more serious attention to form and volumes.

In 1906, after graduating from the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, Martel left for America and entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied under Thomas Anshutz.  During this period he was became friends with Edward Redfield, W. Elmer Schofield, Daniel Garber, William Lathrope, Richard Blossom Farley and Fred Wagner.  In 1908 he became a member of the Philadelphia Sketch Club.

Paul Martel met and married Muriel Remont of Moylan Pennsylvania in 1911.  Shortly after their marriage they left for Europe.  On returning to Belgium, Martel renewed his friendship with his colleague, Auguste Oleffe, and settled in Audergehm, on the outskirts of Brussels, where Oleffe was living.  Martel was not accepted in the Belgian Army at the outbreak of World War I because of his having to wear spectacles.

During this period Martel found a mentor in Samuel Lamm, a wealthy Czechoslovakian industrialist, who supported Martel in exchange for one painting a month.  This was fortuitous, as the ‘patron of the arts’ was a rare and difficult person to find at this time.  Most of the successful Post-Impressionist artists came from middle class backgrounds, and had the means to support themselves.   Paul Martel’s father was a butcher, and he neither had the means nor the inclination to support his son in his art.

It is clear from the prestigious juried exhibitions he participated in that his talent was being recognized.

They were:

Bruxelles, Galerie Artis, Exposition d’Etudes de Paul Martel et Henri Ottayaere. 
March 5-22, 1919.

Antwerp, The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts, Salon Triennal
1920.    Amongst the list of exhibitors were Matisse, Bonnard, Oleffe,
1921.    Verhaegan and Heintz.

Bruxelles, La Salle Aeolien, Exhibition de Paul Jean Martel, 1921.

Ghent, Salle des Fetes Parc de la Citadelle, XLI Exposition 1922.

One of his pieces, Chrysanthemums, was acquired for Brussels in 1920.  It was during this period that he painted the historic re-entry into Brussels of the King and Queen in 1918.  This painting depicts the pressing crowds welcoming their sovereigns home and the fluttering of the flags, the horse guard, and the pomp---the elation of a people regaining their nation.  Materials used in the painting were a flour sack for a canvas, and house paint for oils!

In 1923 Martel decided to return to America as his wife missed her homeland and urged Martel to return to Philadelphia.  This was an unfortunate move because he had to reestablish himself in an environment that was not receptive to new ideas.  The Pennsylvania Landscape School had become established, and in spite of former contacts this turned out to be a difficult period for him.

He set to work in a studio, on the third floor of the Baker Building at 1520 Chestnut Street, and his friend, Fred Wagner, had a studio on the floor above him.

His work during this period shows evidence of the influence of the Pennsylvania Landscape School, and although the colours grow stronger the same lyrical quality pervades.  Through his life, Martel kept the integrity of his philosophy; he never gave way to ‘fashion’.   He had numerous exhibitions with well-known galleries in Philadelphia and also showed at the Philadelphia Sketch Club and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  He exhibited with Prendergast, Redfield, Higgins, Cassatt and Metcalf.

To earn a living Martel started to devote a great proportion of his time to being a portrait artist.  He soon numbered influential families such as the Duponts, the Biddles and the Mathers.  His portrait of the Prendergast girls is in the Smithsonian Institution.

He had been in America six years when the 1930s Depression hit.  His family moved into the studio with him, and Martel continued to paint; he used any medium and material his hand fastened on.  Close on the heels of the Depression came the Second World War.  This was yet another setback for him.  In Philadelphia he had also to battle against the prejudices of the day.  A report by an art critic succinctly describes the situation.  He was sent to report on a recently opened exhibition of French painters at the McClees Gallery:

“ . . .we wonder how long the McClees Galleries are going to wait before they send a representative around the corner to Chestnut Street to the studio of Paul Martel, where they will find paintings that are every bit worthy of being hung with the great Frenchmen now on view . . . What a pity Martel does not have a Paris address instead of one at 15th and Chestnut.  Paris seems to be just around the corner for Philadelphia’s patrons of the fine arts – but 15th and Chestnut is thousands of miles away.”

Paul Martel died in 1944 – a kind, intellectual man who commanded great respect from his contemporaries.  "His love for painting stayed with Paul Martel to the end.  His work is sensual, sensitive, vibrant, calm, joyful, it sustained him – it was the passionate love of his life."

A Chronology of recognized Art Shows, Articles etc.
1.  Society of Arts, Brussels-1920

2.  Brussels-Gallerie Artis, Exposition d’ Etudes de Paul Jean Martel et Henri Ottayaere- March 5-22-1919

3.  Exhibition in Salon Triennal-Antwerp-with Henri Matisse, Bonnard, & Oleffe-1920 – Verhaegan and Heintz in 1921

4.  Purchase of work “Chrysanthemums” by Ministere des Sciences et des Arts, Administration des Beaux Artes, Brussels.-1920

5.  Ville de Gand-42nd Exposition-Moulin De Siska-1922

6.  Ghent, Salle des Fetes Parc de la Citadelle, XLI Exposition-1922

7.  Article in permanent Collection in Woodside House-Oxford, England (14th Annual Exhibition)-1925

8.  Sesqui-Centenial International Exposition-Philadelphia-1926

9.  Aeolien Salle in Brussels, on Rue Royale-Excellent article on Paul’s work by

      Edouard Fontayne-1926

10.  Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts-24th Annual Watercolor Exhibition-1926

11.  Dooner Gallery-Philadelphia-1930

12.  International Watercolor Exhibition-at the- Art Institute of Chicago-1930

13.  Warwick Gallery-Philadelphia-1930

14.  Devit Welsh Gallery-Philadelphia-1932

15.  Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts-33rd Annual watercolor Exhibition-1935

16.  Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts-42nd Annual watercolor Exhibition

17.  Comments on Paul’s exhibition at the Robert Rice Gallery in the “Houston Chronicle”-1976

18.  Robert Rice Gallery-Houston Texas-1977

19.  McAllen International Museum- McAllen Texas-1977

20.  Philadelphia Sketch Club-Philadelphia-1977

21.  Brazosport Center of the Arts-Lake Jackson-Texas-1977

22.  Columbus Museum of Arts-Columbus Georgia-1978

23.  Inventory of American Paintings-Martha Andrews( coordinator of Inventory)-“The Prendergast Ladies” Smithsonian Museum -1982

24.  Montgomery Gallery-San Francisco-1985-2004

25.  Newman Galleries-Philadelphia-1985

26.  Woodmere Museum-Germantown PA.-1985

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