The Watercolors of George Sand

By Peggy Roalf   Friday November 17, 2023

George Sand (1804-1876), the French polymath so sure of her creative powers that she took a masculine name, wore bespoke frockcoats over her dresses and smoked cigars. She was adored by both men and women, and was held in high regard by cultural luminaries such as Flaubert, Victor Hugo and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Not only did she write novels (more than 70), plays (30), and an autobiography, Histoire de ma vie (1855) that ran to five volumes, she was also a highly accomplished watercolor painter. The last time her work in this medium was seen together, in France, was in 1904. But now—at least until next Wednesday, a beautiful collection of these works can be seen at Jill Newhouse Gallery, on the Upper East Side. Above: George Sand, Mountainous Landscape with Lake. Dendrite, watercolor and gouache on paper, 6 1/2 x 9 1/4 inches; below: : Composition (Tache V, c. 1850).


This group of watercolor and gouache paintings, from tiny, nearly abstract buildings to page-size highly detailed imaginary landscapes prompt nose-to-the-glass viewing. Sand worked in a restrained palette and primarily from the imagination, creating glimpses of ideosyncratic places that range from fanciful to archetypal. There is a single work in the show depicting an actual site—and one so well-known to those interested in late 19th-century art that it’s almost redundant to mention that it is of Etretat (below). In her larger sheets, Sand worked in a process she invented of applying paint to paper, then lifting it off with another sheet of paper, leaving marks so delicate that it might be impossible to make them, at this scale, using a brush. Also on view are a few cutout collages of minutely detailed botanicals.


While George Sand painted regularly and throughout her life, she did this as a past-time to please herself. Under no obligation to produce works for sale, she was free to be daring and experimental. You could say she was a painter’s painter—and decidedly, one not to to be missed. So including this afternoon, you have three-and-a-half days to see this exhibition and page through the catalogue from the 1904 Paris exhibition; the gallery is closed on the weekend. Above:Natural Archway to the Sea, c. 1850; below: Study of Ruins, 1870-76). Note: images are sized in proportion to one another here. 


From the exhibition catalogue, used with the gallery’s permission:

George Sand (1804-1876) was born Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin in France in 1804, the daughter of a working class mother and a father of aristocratic descent. As a child, Amandine spent a good deal of time in Paris, but was raised primarily by her paternal grandmother in a chateau named Nohant in the Berry region of central France. It would eventually become her home, and as of 1952, a French national museum named in her honor. 

Although Sand’s life reads like the stuff of Romantic novels, she was in fact a tirelessly productive artist. She began her career as a journalist, publishing articles in Le Figaro and La Revue de Paris, under a pseudonym adapted from her writing partner’s name Jules Sandeau. In 1832, the publication of her novel Indiana brought her immediate fame, and launched a passionate protest against the restrictive social conventions then in place for women by telling the semi-autobiographic story of a young wife who abandons an unhappy marriage to find love. With the additional publication in 1855 of what would become her most famous literary works, Lélia, and La Mare au Diable, Sand had ample material to fill her five-volume autobiography, which she had been planning for years, and which she titled simply Histoire de ma vie. Below: Waterfall with Distant Mountains, 1875.

George Sand was befriended by almost every important artistic and cultural figure of her day, including Balzac, Liszt, Delacroix, Flaubert, and Saint-Beuve, as well as being a lover to Chopin, Musset, and the stage actress Marie Dorval. (Her still popular nonfiction book A Winter in Mallorca, 1842, tells the story of her love affair with the gravely ill Chopin, but is told as a story of two men.) Most biographies describe Sand simply through these love affairs or focus on her reputation for challenging gender norms by wearing pants, and smoking cigars, both of which were against the laws of the time for women. 

Yet in an era when women had very little agency, George Sand possessed remarkable independence and freedom. She actively engaged with current events, lobbying Emperor Louis-Napoléon for leniency toward imprisoned rebels following the 1848 Revolution, though she was later fiercely critical of the violence of the 1871 Commune. Perhaps most remarkably, she obtained a divorce from her husband Casimir Dudevant in 1835, and then won a series of legal battles to gain financial autonomy, as well as custody of her two children, Maurice and Solange. And though she struggled at times, Sand was ultimately able to support her family through her work as writer, and at the same time, to produce a body of works on paper that is original, inventive, and unique. 

View the entire catalogue here

Jill Newhouse Gallery, 4 East 81st Street, FL2, New York, NY Info

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