“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.”
The Philadelphia Record-1943
By Gail Phinney
"In Belgium, 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."
Paul Jean Martel is an artist who defies easy categorization. Equally rooted in the European traditions of the French and Belgian fin-de-siècle avant-garde and the academic realism of the early twentieth century Pennsylvania Impressionists, Martel’s paintings reveal a life-long passion for the paint medium. Martel’s oeuvre mirrors the dynamic evolution of European Modernism. With a nod to French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, Belgian Neo-Impressionism, and the Nabis, Martel’s stylist influences are diverse. His tender portraits of his wife Muriel with their young son Remi recall the domestic scenes of Mary Cassatt, while his own self-portrait from 1943 is possessed of the vibrant color and bold brushwork of Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard; all of whom he exhibited with during the course of his career. Inspired by the series paintings of Claude Monet, Martel’s interest began to shift from depicting the subject itself to a focus on the ephemeral atmosphere within which it was surrounded, which he attempted to capture over time in his paintings of Central Park in New York City and the pastoral setting of Addingham in Pennsylvania.
Martel’s work is possessed of a strong sense of time and place; documenting a life lived on two continents. Born in Belgium in 1879, he moved to Philadelphia with his mother whose employer took an interest in his budding artistic talent. When Martel was sent to Belgium to study at the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles in 1897, he was exposed to an indigenous form of Impressionism, distinguished by a luminous color palette. In 1887, an avant-garde group of Belgian painters known as Les XX (The Twenty) had been instrumental in arranging the exhibition of Georges Seurat's Un Dimanche à la Grande Jatte in Brussels, introducing Neo-Impressionism and a Pointillist technique that became the signature style of Belgian artists Theo Van Rysselberghe and George Lemmen. Following their lead, Martel came to develop his own form of Pointillism with which he continued to experiment over his life time.
After graduation, Martel returned to America to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1906 under Thomas Anshutz, a student of the great realist Thomas Eakins. It was there that Martel became associated with the Pennsylvania school of landscape painters, including Edward Redfield, Daniel Garber, Frederick Wagner and others known as the New Hope painters; a diverse group of artists working in the New Hope region of Bucks County. Several of Martel’s paintings from that period exhibit the more realistic style of Impressionism favored by the group. Despite these many stylist derivations, one thing remained consistent throughout Martel’s career – color was always his muse. When interviewed about his work, Martel stated, “colour to me, is the soul of painting.”
Paul Martel at The Philadelphia Sketch Club ( Far right) circa 1930.
In 1984, the Palos Verdes Art Center introduced its membership to Paul Jean Martel in a celebrated retrospective of his work. Thirty years later, we were pleased to make these important works of art available for a new generation to enjoy.
Director of Education/Palos Verdes Art Center