Paul-Jean Martel 1879-1944


“ Like his contemporaries Van Gogh, Lautrec, and Matisse, Martel stretched the limits of Classical Impressionism beyond the turn of the 20th Century.  But unlike such well-known peers, he has remained relatively unknown until now.  His misted vistas of simple Belgian lifescapes – lavender hazes that vibrate and fade like the scenes in memory – fell victim in his lifetime to the growing public and art critics’ taste for Industrial Realism and photography.  Paul Jean Martel, a “lost impressionist,” now uncovered for the first museum exhibition of his work in the United States.” 

  • William S. Dean, II, Art Critic, December 1983




Peter Fairbanks 

Post Impressionism was “the happy reign of colour”  - a period of thirty years around the turn of the century that was so ebullient with ideas, individuals, and masterpieces, that it is difficult to reduce it to a common denominator.

The passage of the 19th to the 20th century was no simple turning of the page, but a succession of brilliant years in which styles evolved from the first sensational impact of Impressionism to various forms of postimpressionism. This was the period to dare to be different, to push out the boundaries, to dare all with and through colour.  Into this period was born Paul Jean Martel, in Laaken, Belgium.

    In 1897, he entered the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, the same year as Oleffe, Schirren, Thevenet, and Paerels.  In 1898 the influential Felicien Rops of the “Les XX” group died, and there were dramatic changes at the Academie that would influence the work of the Belgian artists.

    Martel was 18, and among the best.  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.  Unfortunately, it was vandalized the night before the judging and had to be withdrawn. 

    Within this talented arena, Martel developed his particular style and extremely individual palate of colour.  The rigorous academic training surfaces in his skillful portrayal of the human body, and in his official portraits.  His interest though lay in the use of colour, and his was the mastery of the use of colour to suggest the form.

    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.”

Influenced by the Impressionists, Martel executed a series of nudes, landscapes and still life studies.  He blended objects into their reflections, creating a luminous quality that animated his canvas.  Colour was the key to his aestheticism.  He expressed his vision by differentiating the tones he used.

    Some of Martel’s work evokes Renoir, but Martel would point out that whereas Renoir believed that he could paint light by means of opposite (complementary) colours, which would blend in the eye of the viewer and then produce the scintillating illusion of luminosity; he (Martel) believed that was asking too much of the eye.  A picture was static, and colour could only reflect what the eye wanted to see.

    He spoke of Cezanne who understood that philosophy, and who took them back to the basics.  Martel agreed that he was influenced by the Impressionists, as were many artists of that period, but was not one in the strictest sense of its’ original concept.

    Martel devoted his life to experimenting and proving his theory.  His early work demonstrates this philosophy strongly.  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 befriended by 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

  1. Amongst the list of exhibitors were Matisse, Bonnard, Oleffe, 
  2. Verhaegan and Heintz.


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


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

paul painting landscape w- dogs.jpg

  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 vibrant “symphony in blue” evokes the great emotion of that day – one feels the pressing crowds welcoming their sovereigns home.  The joyous fluttering of the flags, the horse guard, the pomp, the elation of a people regaining their nation.


  Viewing this is an emotional experience, once again as in Martel’s other works, one ‘feels’ that emotion through the tremendous vigor of his closely set brush strokes.  Truly a ‘tour de force’ all the more remarkable as his materials were a flour sack, with the stamp of an American charity on the reverse, for a canvas, and house paint for oils!


  In 1923 Martel decided to return to America, his wife missed her homeland and urged Martel to return to Philadelphia.  This was an unfortunate move – 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.  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 like the Duponts, the Biddles and the Mathers amongst his clientele.  His portrait of the Prendergast girls is in the Smithsonian Institute. 


  He had been in America six years when the Depression hit.  His family moved into the studio with him.  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.


  To view his work is to witness those lively experimental Post Impressionist years.  His canvases relay all the expansion, the colour, and the evolution of that period.  He borrows from the Neo-Impressionists in his use of loose stippled imagery and glowing pigments, from the Nabis in the flattened simplified areas of colour, he develops his own version of Pointillism, using it to further dissolve the imagery.

  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. To quote Historian Dr. bruce Chambers, “Paul was an artistic genius and visionary aesthetic philosopher who remained true to his principles.”