The Artistic Leanings of Photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)

Richard Friswell
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Anna, Nu (1988), graphite

 Alongside Giacometti, who is an absolute point of departure, the man most frequently invoked by Henri Cartier-Bresson amongst the friends we have in common is the publisher Teriade, the wise and ever-vigilant older figure whom he always considered his surest guide. In 1973, Teriade, who had admired and supported Henri from the beginning of his career, advised him to abandon a craft which he could take no further and return to his first great love, drawing. The prod came at just the right moment, and the advice was taken.  

Couple in Cambridge (1928), o/c

  As a child, Henri had dreamed of being a painter. His father drew very well; his “mythical father,” his Uncle Louis, was a professional painter who had scored notable successes while still a pupil at the Villa Medici. Admitted during the 1913 Christmas holidays to the Fontenelle Studio in Brie at the age of five, he relished its magical odors, and, while there, drank in the small-scale landscapes of the surrounding park.His uncle died on the battlefield in 1915, and one of his uncle’s friends, Jean Cottenet, initiated him, aged twelve, into painting. He practiced it every Thursday and Sunday. At fifteen, together with his cousin, the painter, poet, and future archaeologist, Luis Le Breton, he spent a summer by the sea in Normandy, his mother’s country, working at his painting. At school, with the complicity of the superintendent, he devoured modern literature—Rimbaud, Lautreamont, Proust, Joyce; visited the Louvre and galleries; then met Max Jacob and Elie Faure and formed friendships with Rene Crevel and Max Ernst.  

In 1927, when Andre Kertesz, whom Cartier-Bresson recognizes as a “source poetique,” was photographing artists’ studios in Montparnasse, Cartier-Bresson entered that of Andre Lhote, whose prestige, as both teacher and theoretician, was at its apogee. Lhote’s painting was classically-inclined cubism, but he knew how to analyze the rhythms that give structure to works of art, and it is that lesson in structure and geometry that Cartier-Bresson retained. Two canvases that survive from 1928—a nude lying in a strange and empty room and a portrait of the English couple with whom he stayed in Cambridge—have thin, smooth surfaces, and reveal, without violating faithfulness to reality, a curious mix of purist organization and surrealistic atmosphere. What he particularly liked among surrealists, whose meetings he went to with his friends Pierre Josse and Angdre Pieyre de Mandiargues, and what fit in best with his own libertarian temperament and his endless marvel at the surprises of life, was surrealism’s recourse to intuition and spontaneity, its rebellion against all forms of oppression.  

He left Lhote’s studio to escape from the systematic, and in 1930 made a radical break with his bourgeois conventions by embarking for Africa. There, making a living hunting in the Ivory Coast, he went on to hunt images, as sure in his blind as he was in his shooting. He owes his phenomenal success as a photographer to his original training in painting, to his mental agility, to an innocent eye ruled by the golden mean. In Italy and Spain he explored regions that were still primitive, and where the truest humanity was to be found in the kingdom of children and marginals; he spent long months in an energized Mexico, and then went to New York, where he haunted Harlem. He came back to Paris in 1937: to become a press photographer and, as Jean Renoir’s assistant in making documentary films, further to sharpen the quickness and rigor of his eye.  

Table (1943), Tempera

  When in 1943 he escaped from his prisoner of war camp and was asked by a fellow prisoner what he intended to do, he replied firmly—completely ignoring his huge reputation as a photographer—that he would be a painter. Circumstances dictated otherwise. He was devoured by his old taste for adventure and also, as he himself acknowledges, by the duty he felt to bear witness to the wounds and upheavals of the world with some “instrument more rapid than a brush.” Adopting Baudelaire’s description of Constantin Guys, a reporter and moralist like himself, and of the same nervous intensity, he became “a man of the world, a spiritual citizen of the whole universe.”  

His assignments indeed took him to all continents, and especially Asia, where he allowed himself to be absorbed into the multiple aspects of India, China and Japan, and by Buddhism. Even though he mingled with the crowds, with outcasts and pariahs, he remained, as Baudelaire had said, “an observer, a prince who, wherever he goes, relishes his anonymity.” Cartier-Bresson was totally devoted to the exactions of his profession but never failed to take in monuments and museums, to broaden his aesthetic experience, to draw, often furtively, in his travel notebooks. He remained in close touch with the major painters and sculptors he was commissioned to shoot in their studios, a task he performed with connivance and sympathy—whence the extraordinary value of his portraits.  

Gordes (1983) Pencil

In 1966, he quit the Magnum agency he had founded in 1947, and went back to occasional painting—though not in oils, which would have required a studio and a fixed abode, but in tempera, a much more intimate medium. Teriade’s exhortation in 1973 came at a critical turning-point in his life; it reinforced his own desire, thenceforth, to devote himself almost exclusively to drawing. He turned his back firmly on current practice, in which all techniques and mediums may be mixed. By his lights, and without placing one as superior to the other, painting and photography were two indispensable means of “integrating with life,” as by the dictum of the poet Reverdy, “life itself is the only source.” But at the same time, and with his usual lucidity, Cartier-Bresson pointed up the contradiction in the procedure between the two mediums. Photography is the instantaneous and external seizure, drawing on the inner awareness of what is taking place in time. Unlike photography, with its mechanical transmission, drawing offers a hand, a graphology. Painting, or color as distinct from form, demands the grinding and preparation of pigments, and is something else again.  

In drawings, Cartier-Bresson largely limited himself to black and white; and in color, to tempera, with its quick absorption and matte surface, using the technique with much restraint and a kind of Oriental grace. His invaluable temperas, both figures and landscapes, of which the most notable is his View of Bern, share a Nabi-like delicacy of subject and the luminescence of Indian miniature painting. In drawing, Cartier-Bresson uses mainly a hard pencil or graphite, pierre noire or pierre d’Italie, whose close grain has, from the Renaissance onwards, served to outline volumes, and very occasionally charcoal, red chalk or silver point (pointe d’argent). His drawings in pen-and-ink, quickly and unhesitatingly sketched, executed from the vantage point of a cane chair, such as his landscape Orissa in India, or those Piranesi-like drawings of intertwined structures, or the iron bridges in his Newcastle upon Tyne, show and imperious form of shorthand and calligraphic accents of the most masterly sort.  

Nude in Andre Lhote studio, 1979, o/c

  Before becoming meditation, drawing is an implacable discipline; it questions everything. Cartier-Bresson’s beginnings were indeed difficult and laborious, full of doubts, and executed under the critical gaze of such highly skilled draftsmen as his friends Sam Szafran and Georg Eisler. Such drawings as the giant skeleton, meticulously studied, in the Museum of Natural History, planned to be finished in eight days but actually taking him a year’s work, or the preliminary squared patter, dry and rigid, of the view from a window in Malakoff, are, for him, necessary exercises, like scales. On his third try, the lines grow more supple and absorb light and dark as do Matisse’s charcoal drawings, for—to follow Alberti’s dictum—“to draw light” is to liberated form.  

The most widespread kind of drawing is that done from memory or the imagination, which has its own codes. Drawing from observation, before the subject, from a model—the kind that Cartier-Bresson, in the inflexible manner of Cezanne and Giacometti (along with Degas, his main models), resolutely adopts—is akin to drawing from natural perception, as boldly introduced by the fifteenth century masters, van Eyck, Masaccio, Uccello, Piero, from whom he also claims descent. “Art lies in nature, from which we must extract it,” wrote Dürer, and that, for a solitary, dispossessed, disinherited modern artist, requires both innocence and science; it demands a perpetual beginning.  

After a few group shows in galleries in New York Zürich, Cartier-Bresson exhibited his drawings at the City of Paris Museum in May, 1983. The noted American artist, Saul Steinberg, of whom Cartier- Bresson made two superb camera portraits in 1946, one with and one without his cat, wrote him the following card—greatly encouraging and confirming him in his chosen path—in August: “I often look at tour drawings in the Museum of Modern Art catalogue. To my mind, photography was a form of gymnastics for you, a sort of decoy, an alibi for your real thing in life.”  

Paysage, Le Grande Banc (1984) Charcoal

 His small-scale drawings, mainly executed on English paper or on Angoulême Verges, are autonomous sketches; everything now is a rough draft, a sketch, something unachieved, unfinished, a “lesser undertaking”(la petite entreprise). But the Carolingian Utrecht Psalter, one of the great expressions of graphic energy, is also tiny, and many of Leonardo’s sublime drawings are no bigger than a man’s hand. Cartier-Bresson does not draw with the excessively authoritative contours of an Ingres or a Picasso, nor by creating an overly muscular central image like Géricault. He is more like Bonnard and Giacometti, the truest of contemporary draftsmen, and his technique is to slow down, mass and make intricate his lines, lines which never enclose that which the bring into being. The sureness of his framing, and its concord with the laws of harmony, is the secret of his photographs. His drawing from nature has no pre-established coordinates; it works through successive approximations in order to find its own way and be confirmed; it submits to the active blankness of the paper, which is matter awaiting form. But that paper also generates light: and from that inner light comes form, for it is a light to which form must yield and join.  

Those Cartier-Bresson drawings which belong to such traditional genres as landscape and portraiture, still life and nude, are full of homages to the oldest and best masters: to Rubens, Dürer, Zurbarán, Delacroix. The still lifes—for he prefers a visible, living nature and human behavior—are scarce. He has little patience for slow and contemplative nature, and most of his still lifes consist of succulently rounded fruit, or artichokes with fleshy leaves. His portraits, punctuated by self-portraits, are of the people about him and his friends; they are rendered—whether a head, or a bust, or full-length—with absolute fidelity, and express his feelings about his subjects. “One must see one’s model whole and be exact in one’s feeling,” Cézanne wrote Emile Bernard on April 15, 1904.  

Landscape in its many forms is his dominant form. Since they share an aesthetic, though not a procedure, it would be interesting to compare the landscapes he photographs –less studied than his portraits and scenes from life– and those he draws, the more so because they are often of the same subject. That governing principle of Chinese art, a landscape which can only be suggested by registering atmospheric change, offered Cartier-Bresson a means to control and appease his fundamental impulsiveness; it enabled him to breathe with light and wind; it allowed him access to the same kind of Oriental meditation that led him to approach the Dalai Lama.  

Bresson on his balcony, Paris, 1992. Photo by M. Franck

  He lives on the top story of a building on the rue de Rivoli, looking down on the Tuileries and the vast space lying between the Louvre, the Invalides and the Eiffel Tower. In the last century, the apartment below him was occupied by Victor Chocquet, the refined and far-seeing amateur, whose portrait was painted by Cézanne and Renoir. It was from that apartment that Monet twice painted the same garden that Cartier-Bresson looks out on and draws endlessly, catching, as the seasons and the hours pass, the wonderful harmony, under a changing sky, of its stones, its leafy branches and the water in its basins. Other urban motifs also attract him: the Jardin des Plantes, the Carrousel, the Conciergerie, places where illustrious monuments rise among the leafless trees; likewise, the severe architecture of Haussmann’s Paris, whose tall, high-yield apartment blocks have their own ornamental sports. When in New York he sets down the great vertical thrusts of its skyscrapers, it is in unexpected form: through a screen of trees. For trees, each of which requires its own kind of pencil-stroke, and especially city trees with their ultra-light quivering, he shares a devotion with Giacometti. He also draws rural landscapes in Europe and Asia, huge masses of trees in open country, the banks of the Loire and Channel cliffs. Mountains, whose various strata, light and distance are so difficult to seize, are another favorite subject.  

Tuileries (1983), Tempera

  What modesty forbad him to risk in photography—the female nude—he felt it would have been a form of rape—he could capture in drawing. The most exquisite, unsurpassed, photographic nudes are the very first, taken by Courbet’s contemporaries, or in the intimate nude portraits taken by the painters themselves. Today, inflation governs photographic nudity; all too often the subject is reduced to an object and has lost its sacred power, the links that bind the cosmos and the human body.  

In his Politics, Aristotle recommends the teaching of drawing, so that the human body, that paradigm of classical art, today laid waste, can be better seen and admired. Cartier-Bresson has long studied Titian and Rubens, the two great interpreters of the female nude, as well as Degas, who created the modern nude with a tactile, polyvalent space that summons up the ancient world. As an adolescent, he was much moved, as his friend Balthus was at the same age, by Seurat’s Poseuses, then to be seen at the Barbazanges gallery. He came up against the problem of feet and hands, a problem that tormented him, but he delighted in modeling the curves of hip and back. The hand that draws, reticent and bold, also touches; the eye discovers and empirically measures proportions: those of one part to another, and of the part to the whole, for which there is neither system nor number. The recumbent female nude, whose organic power and palpitation he expresses, becomes both tree and mountain.  

From a scrupulous fervor is born a moving poetry, an authentic rhythm. What defines an artist is the rectitude with which he devotes himself to his task and with which he offers us, in a unique way, his personal feeling.  

by Jean Leymarie  

(this article originally appeared in the Spring, 1993 issue of Bostonia Magazine.  All text and images are reprinted courtesy of Bostonia Magazine, the alumni publication of Boston University,   


Observations on the Drawing of Henri Cartier-Bresson

By Georg Eisler  

On the walls of my studio there hang two works by Henri Cartier-Bresson: the photograph of the man jumping over a puddle, that memorable study of arrested movement, a truly decisive moment, not only in his work, but also in the history of photography; and on the opposite wall there is a small drawing, a view from the window of Henri’s flat.  This minimal format takes in the Tuileries with the Gare d’Orsay in the background (below, circ. 1985).  One the product of a fraction of a second, the other a protracted love affair with a motif frequently seen and drawn.  This minute web of lines is characteristic of many of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s cityscapes.  They compact a wealth of information and detail into a minimum of space.  Most of the drawings and paintings are quite small.  

For Henri, who started more than sixty years ago as an artist before turning to photography, drawing and painting are in no way a new venture.  Bothe media are forms of dialogue with the realities of the world, one instantaneous and rapid in execution, the other the fruit of trial and error and often painstaking work.  

When looking at Henri Cartier-Bresson’s drawings and especially—as has been my privilege—watching him draw, I am often reminded of the Scottish legend of King Robert Bruce, who, hiding in a cave after losing a battle, was encouraged and inspired by the efforts of a little spider, undauntedly spinning its web in spite of the repeated breaking of the thread.  

During the years of our friendship, Henri and I have frequently drawn together.  It has been a source of pleasure and inspiration to look over his shoulder.  

That the emphasis of Cartier-Bresson’s creativity has, for the past twenty years, shifted from photography to drawing, is no contradiction.  I wee it rather as the expression of a counterpoint in his work.  Both aspects express the personality of the same man, curiosity, compassion and the love of life.  

Pierre Josse (1979) Pencil

What follows are some random observations about various types of his drawing.  There is a very small, almost tiny drawing of a complex of arcades of a steel railway bridge at Newcastle, which is especially characteristic: a mass of abbreviated detail enclosed in an energetic  criss-cross of pen strokes, apparently executed with some rapidity, and yet conveying a sense of monumentality.  In contrast the drawings done in the Museum of Natural History are in a somewhat larger format, yet still quite small considering their subjects.  This awe-inspiring parade of monstrously large bones enclosed by the walls and the glass roof of the museum give the viewer a sense of an inexorable march of the fossils, grotesque in arrested animation.  In complete contrast the portrait-sketch of the artist’s friend, the sculptor Pierre Joxe, is restricted to a minimum of lines conveying a sense of physical presence, but is more than a good likeness by providing insights into the artist’s relationship to his subject.  Like all good portraits, it is also in some sense a self-portrait.  In “Anna” the pencil renders the beauty of the model with discretion.  The fore-shortening of the head resting on the extended arm, is a fine detail.  To draw like this requires much love, not only of the medium, but also of womankind.  There traits characterized much of Cartier-Bresson’s work.  The mountain landscapes drawn with charcoal—of which Le Grand Banc is a good example—have a considerable tactile quality; looking at some long, feline back.  The interplay of rounded forms with incisive detail generates a sense of distance and perspective.  

Editor’s Note: The recollections of George Eisler were written for this 1993 article, regarding Bresson’s life-long friendship


  1. Carol Durham March 20, 2010 5:39 pm

    Great stuff, thanks for another informative read, I enjoy returning to your blog via twitter to read your updates.

  2. Art-Lover March 30, 2014 6:37 am

    Thanks for the post! Henri Cartier Bresson’s photographies are amazing… I found some beautiful pictures representing Cartier Bresson’s “Decisive Moment” in Art Days, here is the link! Enjoy!

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