by Roderick Conway Morris

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Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon
Reading by Henri Fantin-Latour, 1877

A Maverick Master, Revisited

By Roderick Conway Morris
PARIS 29 September 2016


Henri Fantin-Latour was widely admired by his fellow artists, writers, composers and intellectuals in 19th-century France. But it was only toward the end of his life that he won recognition from a more general audience.

Too idiosyncratic to be identified with any of the modernist movements of his times — he was highly critical of Impressionism, for example, while remaining on cordial terms with its exponents — he is now acknowledged to have been an important modernist in his own right but remains even today hard to classify. His fame chiefly rests on his group portraits and still-lifes of flowers (almost all the latter exported to Britain, where there was an enthusiastic market for them during his lifetime).

The last major retrospective devoted to him was at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1982. A revelatory new exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg here makes up for lost time. Stylishly and perceptively curated by Laure Dalon, 'Fantin-Latour' showcases nearly 180 paintings, drawings and lithographs spanning the artist's career. It continues in Paris until Feb. 12, then travels to the Musée de Grenoble in Fantin-Latour's birthplace from March 18 to June 18.

Fantin-Latour was born in 1836 to a little-known artist father who took his family to Paris in 1841, where he began giving his son drawing lessons from the age of 10. Henri was accomplished enough by the age of 15 to win a place at the prestigious école impériale spéciale de dessin et de mathématiques. And he applied himself to his studies with notable single-mindedness. As he was to write to his English dealer and friend Edwin Edwards in 1864: 'Painting is my sole pleasure, my sole purpose.'

This determination is manifest in a series of self-portrait oils and drawings that open the exhibition, executed from the early 1850s onwards. The artist Gustave Courbet described them as 'very beautiful,' adding that this was 'not painting for the bourgeois.'

No less striking here are his early images of his sisters, Marie and Nathalie, whose placid domestic activities, reading and embroidering, offered Henri the opportunity to create sympathetic portraits of female subjects at his own pace.

The artist did spells in other artists' studios, but the principal arena of his further studies was the Louvre, where he made the first of scores of commercial copies of old masters in 1852. He encountered there other artists who were to become lifelong friends: Edouard Manet and Otto Scholderer, who was to introduce him to German Romantic music; James McNeill Whistler; and, in 1866, his wife-to-be, the artist Victoria Dubourg.

In 1859, Fantin-Latour submitted a trio of works to the Salon, Paris's premier showcase of new work: one of his sister Marie, reading; a picture now known as 'The Two Sisters'; and a self-portrait. All three were rejected. To assuage his disappointment, Whistler and his brother-in-law, Seymour Haden, invited Fantin-Latour to England. There, almost as a distraction, he painted his first still-lifes of flowers from English gardens, some lovely examples of which are displayed in the next section of the exhibition. Also here is the 'Betrothal Still-life,' which he presented to Ms. Dubourg on their engagement in 1866.

He made two further trips across the Channel in the 1860s, encountering Edwin and Ruth Edwards, who became his English dealers and close friends, and proved phenomenally successful at marketing his flower pictures, of which he was to paint about 500 to 600 over the next 30 years.

He brought to these still-lifes a particular sensibility, based on his passionate belief in realism, which lent them an extraordinary, intensely observed vibrancy. 'The simplest things, the most seemingly banal, have an interesting character; they must be represented,' he once said. 'Too many artists want to embellish reality — that is to misrepresent it.'

One of the still-lifes was accepted in 1866 for the Salon but passed unnoticed by the jury and public alike. He had better luck with some of the ambitious group portraits of leading artists, writers and intellectuals, which he submitted between 1864 and 1872, and on which much of his lasting fame in his native country rests.

The three surviving of these — 'Homage to Delacroix,' 'A Studio at Batignolles' and 'The Corner of the Table' — can be seen here, along with preparatory drawings and a small oil sketch of 'Homage to Truth.' The last, which contained an allegorical female nude representing Truth, was derided at the Salon and destroyed by the artist.

Only in 'Homage to Delacroix' did Fantin-Latour himself appear, along with the poet Charles Baudelaire, Manet, Whistler and other contemporary luminaries. 'A Studio at Batignolles' was painted four years before the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 and included Manet, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir and the writer émile Zola.

'The Corner of the Table' included the poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, who were lovers at the time. Their presence is thought to have sparked a disagreement that altered the composition of the painting: The poet Théodore de Banville, after sitting for the picture, was replaced by a large flower arrangement. He later made slighting remarks about the 'effeminacy' of the group.

The following section, 'Nature and Truth 1873-1890,' contains a majestic line-up of the artist's mature still-lifes and portraits. Among the flower pieces, some of which have an almost hyperreal quality, are three purchased for the South Kensington Museum in London (later the Victoria and Albert): 'White Lilies,' 'Nasturtiums' and 'Cherries.'

Also here are the only two of the artist's still-lifes — both featuring roses — held in French public collections, from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and from Lyon.

Fantin-Latour had an ambiguous relationship with portraiture: He regarded with horror his father's dependency on it to make a living. Henri was uncomfortable painting likenesses of strangers, but when painting family and friends he produced some superlative examples of the genre. Among works of this kind here are a group portrait of his wife and her family and individual studies of his onetime student Sarah Elizabeth Budgett; Léon Maître, brother of a close friend; and Henri's future biographer Adolphe Jullien. His 'Portrait of Edwin and Ruth Edwards,' on loan from Tate Britain in London, was a critical hit at the Salon of 1875.

The last sections of the exhibition examine lesser-known aspects of Fantin-Latour's working methods, his paintings and lithographs illustrating the music and operas of Berlioz, Wagner and Schumann, and his 'imaginary works,' inspired by classical myths, which draw on his intimate knowledge of old master painting, especially of the Venetian Renaissance, gained during his many years as a copyist at the Louvre.

His earliest known imaginary work, 'The Dream' of 1854, a pastoral vision of a sleeping figure around which hover an angel accompanied by floating female nudes, was rejected by the Salon and not shown again for three and a half decades. But Fantin-Latour continued to work on the nudes throughout his career, though they were seldom seen outside his atelier.

As the study of the archives left by his widow in the 1920s to Grenoble has revealed, Fantin-Latour not only made numerous drawings of the nude but also built up a considerable collection of photographs (of a total of 4,500 pieces, a third are of the nude and the remainder of works of art). The last years before his death in 1904 were increasingly devoted to his imaginary works, for which he often drew directly on his photographic reference material, as is demonstrated here by the juxtaposition of some of these vintage photos with his painted works.

The artist combined his interest in the nude with imaginary scenes from his musical heroes' operas as early as the mid-1870s, as witnessed by his pastel here of 'The Rhine Maidens,' which, with its hazy outlines of nude female figures swimming through space, anticipates fin-de-siècle Symbolism. One of his fantastical, visionary compositions of the 1890s, 'The Night,' featuring a reclining nude amid billowing, crepuscular clouds and draperies, was bought by the French state in 1897, only the second of his works to be bought for the nation.

Although executed with Fantin-Latour's customary technical brilliance, these whimsical late pieces have nothing of the power of his earlier works, and indeed seem scarcely to have been made by the same hand that created his unforgettable portraits and still-lifes. But then the portraits and still-lifes derived from an entirely different aesthetic — an unwavering, almost religious, dedication to realism that Fantin-Latour recorded in a letter to Edwin Edwards in 1869: 'Nature — everything is in that.'

First published: New York Times International Edition

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024