The Plein Air artist – those whose artistic focus is the nature around them – has often had to cart their canvases, brushes, oils, and rags in some sort of bag or rucksack.
For John Singer Sargent, it was a simple basket. For Camille Pissarro, a wheeled contraption he most likely invented himself. Paul Cézanne fashioned some straps for his painting box so he could carry it on his back.
Our research began with a question: what did artists use to carry their materials? For John Singer Sargent it was a simple woven basket. For Claude Monet, seen here in a painting by Sargent, it was apparently nothing.
A few years ago, we began researching the manner in which artists carried their materials and soon found ourselves returning to our ancestors.
The historic estate of Fonfrège has been home to several artists, most notably Max Leenhardt (1853-1941) and Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870), both of whom painted in and around the estate.
In a dusty room off of a forgotten wing of Chateau Fontfroide-le-Haut, one of several historic structures on the domaine, we found a stash of Max’s belongings in an old trunk — along with a bag he must have used to carry his supplies.
Maximillian Leenhardt was one of many artists and intellectuals who called Fonfrège home. At right, a painting of an old road that crossed the estate.
Inside were the traces of an artist’s life: smears of oil paint, some old brushes, and the strong smell of turpentine.
It was a ruthlessly simple leather tote, beautiful in both form and construction. Having sat for some 75 years, it was indeed very old but the leather was remarkably supple and soft. With no maker’s mark, it appeared to have been custom-made.
But what really struck us about this bag was its sturdiness and ability to be crushed and conformed to its purpose. The inner seams were bound in leather.
An old leather bag is discovered in a trunk once belonging to the artist Max Leenhardt. We are inspired.
We thought: what if we made a bag like this, where even when one turned it inside-out, it was just as honestly and purely constructed as the outside?
We could easily imagine Max, like many of his contemporaries, traveling to Mont Ventoux, a favourite location for plein air painters. Mont Ventoux is located about 150 kilometers from Fonfrège so in the 19th century, the journey most likely involved a train or hired car.
Mont Ventoux in a painting by plein air artist, Paul Flandrin. For many artists in the region, the mountain was both mystical and spiritual, and frequently appeared in their landscape paintings.
When Max was a youth staying at Fonfroide, he would frequently show the family some of his early drawings. No doubt the young man felt more than just a little over-shadowed by his elder cousin, Frédéric Bazille, who was already a celebrated painter.
Indeed, shortly after Bazille’s death, Leenhardt enrolled in the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Montpellier. During his time, there he went on a painting trip to Austria, along with his cousin, Eugène Burnand, another aspiring painter in the family.
Max soon became famous in his own right, although never to the level of Frédéric Bazille.
Still, if one is in Paris and leaving by train from the Gare de Lyon, by all means, look for his contribution to the massive ceiling murals in the iconic Train Bleu Restaurant.
Inspired by Max Leenhardt’s painting bag, the Ventoux Tote is as beautiful on the inside as on the outside, with bound leather seams.
When it came time for us to finalize the design for the Ventoux tote, we chose to make it in Italian suede rather than leather. It is buttery-soft but also very strong, able to allow one to pack it full or carry it casually rolled with little more than a wallet and phone inside.
And of course, we also made sure to make it just as beautiful on the inside as on the outside. We feel quite sure both Frédéric and Max would agree.
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