It’s difficult, if not impossible, to fathom the reasons why one hasn’t heard of an artist who might be well known by other people.
In the case of Jacques Majorelle, I guess that my reason for not knowing him is that the majority of information about him is in French, and that his work is now so widely dispersed that it has yet to be brought together for a major retrospective exhibition, although there has been a book published about him (in French) since his death in 1962.
In other words, he’s stayed just below my radar.
The picture above provides another reason why Jacques Majorelle is less well known than he might be.
He had a very famous father: Louis Majorelle. To call Majorelle pere a furniture designer would be almost slanderous. He is much better and more exotically described by the French term: ebeniste. Louis was a prominent member of a group of designers who specialised in the Art Nouveau, and although much of his work was with furniture, he produced many other decorative objects from lamps to textile designs. Here’s an Artcyclopedia search link.
Oddly enough, even when you do know a little about Jacques Majorelle, it is frustrating trying to research him and his work. There’s a site called Insecula that allows you to search through all the major museums of France. If you look for “Majorelle”, it’s only his father, Louis, that turns up in the results.
Jacques was born in the town of Nancy, France in 1886. Here he is at the age of 4:
He went to l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Nancy, then later moved to Paris where he studied at the Academie Julian. This atelier was a true nexus for the revolutionary upsurge in French painting in the second half of the 19th Century.
By 1908, Majorelle was travelling and painting in Spain and Italy, and then in 1910 he had his first encounter with the Arab world when he landed in Egypt.
Majorelle felt irresistibly drawn to the Arab world and returned to Egypt every year until the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914. He was invalided out of the army with pulmonary problems and arrived in Morocco for the first time in 1917.
He was completely smitten by his exotic surroundings, and effectively spent the rest of his life in Morocco, based in Marrakech, initially as a painter and later as a gardener.
Majorelle is sometimes classed as an Orientalist, but strictly speaking although his subject matter was the Arabic speaking people and the places of North Africa, he was more of an Occidentalist, because he was painting in the far western extreme of the Islamic world.
Majorelle returned periodically to Nancy and Paris where he enjoyed several successful exhibitions of his prodigious output of paintings showing the markets (Souks) and fortified towns (Casbahs) of the Morooccan interior.
Over the years, Majorelle’s style became flatter and increasingly decorative.
He happily changed from one medium to another. One can find works in oils as well as pastel, gouache and even distemper enhanced with gold dust.
Tree Ferns These were probably painted in
his garden. Recent research reveals that Tree Ferns was painted in the Ivory Coast near Mont Tonkui.
Between 1945 and 1952 Majorelle made several forays further afield in Africa, his palette increasing in brilliance and hue.
All the while that Majorelle was painting his vivid images of Morocco and further afield, he was at work on what was to become his chef d’oeuvre, which is nowadays much more famous than his paintings.
He bought a ten acre plot of land in the date palm groves on the outskirts of Marrakech, and built himself a house in the “International Style” that was also his studio.
In the grounds of this large villa he planted an impressive array of cacti, succulents, bamboos, bananas, tree ferns, and over 400 varieties of palms. This was serious gardening.
What made the whole composition of house and garden extraordinary however was Majorelle’s choice of colour for the walls of the house, as well as for the pots, planters, pools, walls and just about every possible paintable surface on the property.
He invented, if that’s the right word, a new and very intense shade of blue which he modestly named ‘Majorelle Blue’, and even went to the trouble of trademarking it.
You can see it here:
His later years were dogged by a car crash in 1955 that resulted in the amputation of one of his feet, and in the following year he was divorced, remarrying in 1961. One year later he was badly injured in another car crash, this time breaking his femur.
He was repatriated to France to recover, but died on the 14th of October 1962
The fabulous garden fell into disrepair after his death, but was discovered by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge, who bought the house and restored the gardens.
The house now contains a museum of Islamic Art, and some paintings by Majorelle.
Here’s the only book about him that I could find available online:
Les orientalistes – Jacques Majorelle by Félix Marcilhac, ACR Editions 1995, ISBN: 2867700779
288 pages at the rather eye watering price of £80 from Amazon
And lastly, a small personal anecdote about my ignorance of Majorelle…
Winston Churchill met Majorelle in 1946 during one of his many stays at the world famous Mamounia hotel. Churchill was a painter, too. He persuaded the management of the hotel to commission a mural by Majorelle, which he executed on the ceiling of the fabulous dining room.
In 1965 I sat under that very mural, and I even remember staring up at it, but because of my tender years I was filled more with amazement than any curiosity about the artist, so I failed to register it as my first sight of a Majorelle.
I guess you only see things when you are ready…..