A little over a month ago, news broke that a museum in Elne, a small town in the south of France near the Spanish border, had discovered that nearly 60% of its paintings were forgeries. Many of these works had been attributed to a local nineteenth-century artist, Étienne Terrus (1857-1922). Though the extremity of this revelation and its art market consequences cannot be ignored, this story caught my eye because I have been to a number of these local museums that proudly emphasize their local artist. The impulse to interpret this news as a tragedy of fraudulent goods and misspent funds misses the point entirely – the intangible consequences of losing Terrus as a local icon are more critical.
Terrus, like many nineteenth-century painters, went to Paris to study painting at the age of 17 and soon returned home to Elne where he remained, painting profusely, for the rest of his life. Some short biographies on the painter suggest that his work had a strong influence André Derain and Henri Matisse, who visited the artist in Elne, as they began to paint in the Fauvist idiom. The Fauvist claim seems suspect to me—if they were attracted to Terrus’s style, it was likely partially a backhanded compliment of sorts. Fauvism, grounded in wild colors (fauve = “wild beast” in French) and a de-skilling of figural painting, would most likely have grown out of his LACK of skill or inspired experiments, rather than any unique contribution of the artist.
So the importance of Terrus comes down not to his “skill” or his actual paintings, but the fact of his locality. In The Pride of Place: Local Memories and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century France, Stéphane Gerson has outlined how local cults of personality and celebrations of local history grew enormously during the nineteenth century. In part, he writes, this was a particular turn of public relations by the current elites of any one town—by positing a certain group of ancestors as elites, they would claim for themselves a measure of glory by association, by being the group of people who had stepped into the places once held by those hallowed forefathers. Though there could always be a tension between local pride and unified nationalism, enthusiasm for one’s home town or residence could be a way of expressing independence under an increasingly modern government. Assuming an artist as part of a local tradition could mean positing creativity and discernment as a crucial component of local character.
The focus on sites of local art production, then and now, also rejects the notion that the provinces could only beget mediocrity relative to Parisian finesse. In many cases, celebrating local artists, whether or not they had success in Paris, occurred because a local académie, or at least a few skilled teachers, existed to cultivate a local art scene—its teachers and students might then be more likely to be retained to produce local monuments, decorations, and other functional pieces of art. These local teachers provided foundational instruction for pupils who might then choose to go on to Paris, get elite training for themselves, and then decide whether to toil after Salon success in the capital or return home as one of the most skilled artists available for commission.
To go one step further, local artists are often dismissed on the basis of quality, with scholars declaring their paintings to be less accomplished than artists working in Paris. I’ve argued repeatedly in other contexts that assessing the quality of painting is not as useful as putting it into its immediate social and historical context, especially when it comes to regional artists. In looking at Terrus’s paintings online, they seem to be quite pleasant landscapes that are clearly influenced by Impressionism—he understands how to use his brushstrokes to build up trees and buildings and pavement. Instead of the building styles of northern France that characterize landscapes by the primary Impressionists, Terrus’s landscapes evidence the majestic stucco towers that populate cities and towns in that southwestern corner of France. The landscapes include local character while still utilizing the Impressionist color palette and not turning to symbolist colors, like Van Gogh, or even the brighter Southern palette of a Cézanne or Bazille. Other Terrus paintings show more experimentation with colors and lines, demonstrating how a wild beast, a fauve, might be found among these tame landscapes. (Assuming, of course, that the paintings I found online were not the forgeries.)
His importance to Elne is now the contemporary consequence of those long-standing efforts across small towns in France to claim their local producers and elevate them to the status of legend. Because Terrus fixated on his own lesser-known area of residence, his paintings preserve the changes of that town over time and demonstrate how an artist divorced from the Parisian establishment (defined contemporaneously or in retrospect) could adapt the trends of his era and re-present them for his friends and neighbors. This would certainly be a point of pride for a smaller city without a storied artistic tradition of its own. The timeline of the town’s efforts to build up its local museum, and in so doing unintentionally acquire a large number of forgeries, coincide with the increasing decentralization of art historical investigations. In other words, where it was once expected that a scholar would study artists working in Paris, its become increasingly accepted that scholars might study a local artist with a local following in a small city a bit separate from the usual tourist endeavors. It makes sense that building up a Terrus collection in a local museum would seem like a way to draw tourism because the infrastructure for local artists to be deemed interesting has considerably increased – yet so has the potential for bad actors, like the “experts” named in reports of this fraud, to take advantage of a small town’s desire to stand out.