Finding Inspiration in the World’s Great Art

Eugène Burnand

Eugène Burnand (1850–1921) was a prolific Swiss painter and illustrator from Moudon, Switzerland. Born of prosperous parents who taught him to appreciate art and the countryside, he first trained as an architect but quickly realized his vocation was painting. He studied art in Geneva and Paris then settled in Versailles, a center for artists. In the course of his life he travelled widely and lived at various times in Florence, Montpellier, Seppey (Moudon) and Neuchâtel. His later years were spent in Paris where he died a celebrated and well respected artist both in Switzerland and France. He was primarily a realist painter of nature. Most of his works were of rural scenes, often with animals, the depiction of which he was a master. He increasingly painted human figures and by the end of his career could be called a portraitist whose skill revealing character was profound.

A deeply religious man, his Protestant beliefs led him to include more religious works that he put his stamp of realism on, and he became best known in Europe for his illustrations of The Parables, that was published in French, German and English versions over four decades. His works are now widely distributed in museums and private collections throughout the world and in his own dedicated museum in Moudon. His final project was a series of 104 pastel portraits of allied WWI participants of all nationalities that was in-complete when he died; a unique body of work that was subsequently pub-lished as a book in 1922 and recently republished in 2010.

Eugène Burnand was a good living family man who kept detailed records of his life and work that facilitate a thorough understanding of his methods and motives. He, his wife Julia and family of eight children, including two sets of twins, moved with him as his work took him around France and Switzerland. His traditional style ensured a conventional appreciation that he and his family enjoyed, but brought some criticism and conflict with contemporaries who were embracing modern art. Burnand was greatly influenced by artists such as Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet. This is reflected in perhaps his best known work, The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection 1898, which hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Early life

He was born on August 30, 1850, in Chateau Billens, the property of his grand-father Charles Burnand, in Moudon, Vaud, Switzerland, a French speaking region north of Lausanne. His parents, (Colonel) Ėdouard Burnand and Henriette (née Foltz) were part of the Protestant bourgeois establishment of the town. His father was a forestry inspector who travelled considerably, invented the Prélaz-Burnand rifle in 1859 and had “the gifts and temperament of an artist, and drew and painted all his life as an amateur.”

Eugène was the youngest of three surviving children. His older brothers had already left home when he was born and were working in France. The family soon moved to Chateau Carouge in the Moudon Ville Haute. Both his parents were well educated and cultured and he had a mature relationship with them. He travelled often with his father throughout the Canton of Vaud in the course of his work and this instilled in him a love of, and familiarity with the region. Up to the age of ten his formal education was in Moudon. The family moved to Florence in late 1860 where his father was charged with introducing the Prélaz-Burnand rifle to the Tuscan army. Seven months later they returned to Switzerland and set up residence in Schaffhouse, but meantime Eugène had done well at school in Florence and its artistic heritage had made a lasting impression on him. His secondary education continued in Schaffhouse in German and in 1867 he somewhat reluctantly took his father’s advice to study architecture at Zurich so he might have a reliable means of earning a living. His artistic talents shone however, and he changed over to study painting, and after four years in Zurich he gained his architecture diploma and went to Geneva to study for a short time under the celebrated Barthélemy Menn whose style he greatly admired.

Artistic career

In 1872 he entered the Fine Arts School in Paris under Jean-Léon Gérôme and he later became a pupil. He spent time with his brother Ernest in Provence in 1873 and loved this region in which he painted many scenes over the years. In 1877 he spent time in Florence and Rome but returned to France the following year when he married and settled in Versailles, acquiring new skills from the workshop of his wife’s family, who were the well-known painters and engravers Girardet.

He produced many successful paintings of animals in Provence, particularly in the Camargue region. Troupeau de boeufs au bord de la mer was another typical study at this time. In 1879 he produced one of his impressive large works, La Pompe à Feu measuring 200 x 310 cm, an action picture with men and horses. The beautiful and sunny Gleaners followed in 1880. He became publicly noticed in 1884 with the publication of ‘Mireille’, an epic poem by Frédéric Mistral illustrated by Burnand. The same year he produced Bull in the Alps, another large striking picture which further demonstrated his skill painting animals and understanding of the importance of animals in Swiss rural life. (Bull in the Alps was completed in two months of 1884 and became his signature painting.)

He moved to Paris in 1885 and stayed four years, during which time he, with other Swiss artists organized the Swiss fine arts section for the Paris International Exhibition of 1889, a task that caused some difficult relationships with other artists later on. Moving from Paris to Montpellier he completed La Descente des troupaux 200 x 120 cm OOC in 1890. He moved back to Switzerland to be near his sick father in 1892 and completed several canvases of Swiss scenes including Lake Geneva. Following the death of his father and soon after his mother in 1894 he remained in the family home at Seppey near Moudon and produced The Peasant farmer and his only major historical painting La Fuite de Charles le Téméraire (après la bataille de Morat), The Flight of Charles the Bold after the Battle of Morat. By this time he had produced over one hundred catalogued works.

His move in late 1895 to a new rural residence at Fontfroide-le-Haut, a few miles from Montpellier, seemed to provide him with the environment and inspiration for a concentration on religious themes for his pictures, notably, Retour de l’enfant Prodigue (Return of the prodigal son) 1896-7, L’Invitation au festin (Invitation to the feast) 1899, and the picture by which he is now best known, Les Disciples Pierre et Jean courant au sépulchre le matin de la Résurrection, ‘The Disciples Peter and John running to the sepulchre on the morning of the Resurrection 1898, which is in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

At the start of the 20th century he was at the height of his fame and he and other artists contributed to the ceiling of the now famous Train Bleu buffet in the Gare de Lyon, Paris, that at the time was major part of the new building work to mark the Paris International Exhibition of 1900. Burnand painted Le Mont-Blanc vu de Clergère.

Another large major picture with a religious theme was started in this period, La Prière sacerdotale, done during a temporary move to Florence for the winter of 1900-1. He changed the head of Christ several times and the final version was done in 1918. As with most of his paintings of this type, he used models from his large circle of friends and neighbors, many of whom were local tradesmen. The individuals in this painting are carefully described in René Burnand’s biography of his father.

Before he moved back to Switzerland in 1903 so his family could re-establish their Swiss roots, many other religious works were completed such as Jésus à Béthanie (Jesus at Bethany), L’Invitation au festin (Invitation to the Feast) and L’Homme de douleur (Man of sorrow). The location in which he chose to live back in his native Switzerland was the village of Hauterive, close to Neuchatêl, in a large old house with a terrace with old trees, a setting that provided all the backdrops he needed for his Les Paraboles project, that took him most of the four years he spent there. It became a book of thirty-two parables illustrated by 76 paintings, drawings and sketches. It was first published in 1908 in French, later in German, and an English edition in 1948. This book and the pictures from it made him well known, and were very widely used by religious organizations in Europe and throughout the world and can still be found today. The pictures are characterized by uniquely individual people showing the emotion and gravitas of the stories, which he achieved by once again using models from the people in his locality and often his wife Julia for the females required. He believed that religious messages in art should depict everyday people showing their humanity. A web facsimile of his Parables in English is available. He also completed the large canvas, La Voie Douloureuse (Via Dolorosa) while at Hauterive.

He moved back to Paris with his family in 1907 and it remained his main base until his death. The war years 1914-18 were spent back at Seppey, and there were many trips in the furtherance of painting projects to locations such as Monpellier, Marseille and Assisi where worked on the pictures for the book The Little Flowers of Saint Francis. He painted Le samedi saint (Holy Saturday) 1907-8, and prepared the cartoons for one of his most important works, the stained glass windows of the Sermon on the Mount 1910 in the Reformed church at Herzogenbuchsee, near Berne. His series “Types vaudois” at this time, portraits of regional characters of Vaud, probably set the style for his later military types. His last large canvas Labour dans le Jorat was done at Seppey in 1915 but was destroyed in a fire at Lausanne in early 1916. He had repainted the canvas within a year.

Eugène Burnand’s last enterprise was possibly his greatest and most ambitious, but is little known today. In 1917, with the experience of his limited series of Types Vaudois behind him, he set out to make a series of pencil and pastel portraits of “types” that were engaged with the military in the war that had started in 1914. Burnand was fascinated by the wide range of people from varied races from all over the world who had been drawn into the conflict on the side of the Allies. He was more interested in the lowly than the leaders and travelled about France to find his subjects in ports and barracks. He got to know them first, often to meet his family and give hospitality. That way he got to know their true feelings and attitudes, which he depicted with great skill. He had completed forty by 1918 at the end of the war, but the military remained active for a long time afterwards, and he completed 104 in all. Eighty were exhibited at the Luxembourg Museum, Paris, in 1919 to great public acclaim, and 100 were exhibited a year later as a prelude to their publication as a book in 1922. Most (101) of the originals were purchased by American philanthropist William Nelson Cromwell for the French Nation and they are now held by the French Legion of Honour where seventy-two of the 101 are displayed at their museum in Paris. One hundred and two have recently been published again in a book to mark the Great War centenary and the battle of Verdun.

By 1900 Burnand was one of Western Europe’s foremost artists and his subsequent focus on religious themes, particularly The Parables, elevated him to popularity among the general public. His work has been considered too ‘photographic’ by critics to gain the same merit by academics and consequently he has not remained well known even in Switzerland and France. He was never very well known in the English speaking world but has recently been reviewed well, and is being re-evaluated as an artist who was able to represent the soul of his country through cool, honest, and deeply insightful draughmanship. His picture of the Disciples Running to the Sepulchre is finding a new appreciative audience and the centenary of the First World War has generated interest in its art, to which Burnand made a large contribution and is getting new attention.

In 1917 Burnand produced a postcard for a national celebration of the Red Cross, a Swiss organization originally, that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that same year. Half a million copies were sold in a few days, profits going to the Red Cross.

After the armistice had been signed, ending the war, he returned with his family to the same Paris residence they had left four years previously. Tragedy struck in the form of influenza that November. It killed son Daniel (also an artist) and laid the artist low. (The epidemic of Spanish Flu at that time killed more than the war had). He was made an Officer of the Legion of Honour in 1920 shortly after a fire had damaged his workshop and several paintings. Seemingly having suffered small heart attacks around this time, he developed pneumonia in February 1921. Attended by his son Rene, a doctor, he died on February 4th in his Parisian home. Four weeks later his wife Julia died too. They are buried at the small church at Vulliens, just a few kilometers from Seppey, which is in that parish.


Seppey, near Vulliens is subject to spelling variation that causes much confusion. Séppey is one, Sépey is another. The main point is that it is that the address is Seppey, Vulliens, Vaud (GPS North 46.635699 East 6.794256). On no account should it be confused with Le Sépey, a ski village 50 or so miles away!

Article Source: Wikipedia


Much of this information is taken from "Eugène Burnand, peintre naturaliste" by Philippe Kaenel (Professor of Art History at Lausanne University) ISBN:88-7439-104-8, and "Eugène Burnand, the man, the artist and his work" by René Burnand. Pub. Berger-Levrault, Paris 1926.

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Eugène Burnand

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Eugene Burnand: In Search of the Swiss Artist (1850-1921)

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Eugène Burnand, pastel and pencil self-portrait, 1915.


Julia Burnand by Eugène Burnand, 1889.

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The disciples Peter and John running to the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection, 1898.




Bull in the Alps, 1884.


The Peasant Farmer, 1894.


The Flight of Charles the Bold, 1894-1895.


Eugène Burnand and Julia

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