A second-generation Impressionist of French and Spanish ancestry, Édouard Cortès was the master of Parisian cityscapes. Interested in effects of lighting and weather, Cortès captured the Romantic spirit of the French capital in innumerable canvases that gleam and glisten with expertly rendered contrasts of dark and light. Nostaligic for the glories of Belle Époque Paris, Cortès once stated that he wished he could have halted history in the year 1939. Although he also painted the countryside of Normandy, Cortès is best known for his striking views of pre-war Paris and its cobbled streets, horse drawn carriages and night cafes. For that reason, Cortès has been rightly called the “Painter of the City of Light.”
Édouard Leon Cortès was son of a notable Spanish painter— Antonio Cortès who was himself the son of a painter—and Léontine-Augustine Frappart, a dressmaker. Cortès was raised in the town of Lagny-sur-Marne, 20 minutes from Paris. It was in Lagny that he began training in his father’s studio at the age of 13. The town had attracted numerous artists, including members of the Barbizon landscape school and in this setting young Cortès became aware of Impressionism and plein-air painting methods. Sixteen-year old Cortès made a successful Salon debut in April 1899, exhibiting a realist painting titled Le Labour, which depicted a farmer plowing his field with a team of two horses. A British weekly journal that reviewed the salon exhibition characterized Cortès as a “Clever boy artist” and “a disciple of the plein-air school…”
In 1900, a local painter and lithographer, Marie-Edmond Höner, founded an artistic and literary union the soon established a gallery and exhibition venue in Lagny. Cortès submitted paintings to the union’s exhibitions, continued studying with his father, and participated in the Salon exhibitions of 1901, 1902 and 1903. He also explored the nearby villages and visited with his sister Jeanne’s family in Normandy. After the very favorable reception of a 1906 canvas depicting autumn on the Boulevard de la Madeleine, Cortès began to specialize in street scenes and organized a very successful auction of his own works at the Hôtel Drouot in April, 1907.
Cortès married his first wife, Fernande Joyeuse, in 1914. A lifelong pacifist, he soon joined the French military, serving as a contract agent rather than a soldier. After recovering from a bayonet wound, Cortès was awarded the Croix de Guerre and was moved to a staff position where he made strategic renderings of enemy formations. Because of his deepening pacifist convictions, he turned down the Légion d'Honneur when it was later offered to him. In 1916 his daughter, Jacqueline Simone was born, but Fernande died two years later, leaving Cortès a single father. He then married his sister-in-law Lucienne with whom he moved in Paris in 1919.
After the war, Cortès returned to painting with new vigor, producing many of his finest city scenes. His street scenes, which make viewers feel as if they are strolling in 19th century Paris, depict the grace of a sophisticated city and its citizens. With a lightly loaded brush, Cortès conjured up charming effects of light and weather including melting snow and glowing lanterns. His paintings of notable civic attractions—including the Paris Opera house and the Moulin Rouge—became popular with wealthy tourists, who brought them home the way that European aristocrats had once collected Canaletto’s “vedute” (cityscapes) of Venice. With his great consistency and facile brushwork, Cortès became a much sought after artist.
An active member of the Union des Beaux-Arts de Lagny (and its first president) Cortès exhibited with this group into the late 1930s. In the 1920s and 30s Cortès received many awards, earned numerous favorable critical notices and was a frequent exhibitor in Paris exhibitions, including the Salon d'Automne, the Salon d'Hiver, the Salon de la Société Nationale de l'Horticulture and the Salon des Indépendants.
During the years of World War II, Cortès moved to Cormelles-le-Royal (in Normandy) where he continued to work while trying to avoid miseries of war and occupation. A modest man who tried to avoid the attention his work inevitably brought, in the early 1950's Cortès returned to his home town of Lagny, where he lived and painted until his death in 1969.