Friday, October 12, 2007

A duck, a cat, a flower, and a hanged man

"La Haute-Seine"

I recently acquired an incomplete run of an obscure weekly journal of the 1870s, Paris à l’eau-forte.

The editor, Richard Lesclide, and art editor, Frédéric Regamey, were cashing in on the French etching revival. In the process, they helped launch the Impressionist movement. They actually published quite a few Impressionist etchings in the year running up to the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874, especially by Armand Guillaumin (who will probably get his own blog entry in due course). In the issues I have, the first print they actually describe as “impressioniste” is La Haute-Seine, published on January 9th, 1876, and credited to Van Ryssel. There’s a second etching by the same artist on February 27th, an “impression” titled Le chemin creux d’Auvers.

La Haute-Seine is signed in the plate three times: with the name P. Van Ryssel and the date 1874, with the initials V. R., and with the emblem of a duck. Although my copy is marred by having been splashed with liquid on the reverse, it’s a lovely river scene with smoking factory chimneys that captures the very essence of early Impressionism, in a style very like that of Camille Pissarro. But who on earth was Van Ryssel?

Scattered through earlier issues of Paris à l’eau-forte are more etchings by the same artist, each with the fresh, lively immediacy of an Impressionist sketch.

How could the Impressionist aesthetic have permeated the commercial print market so early? The search for an answer to that question uncovered a marvellous untold story of the dawn of Impressionism.

The clue was in the duck.

Van Ryssel, it turns out, was a pseudonym; Ryssel is the Flemish name for Lille, where the artist was born. The artist’s real name was Dr. Paul Ferdinand Gachet – the same Dr. Gachet who was twice painted by Vincent Van Gogh. One of these portraits sold at auction in 1990 for a record $82.5 million.

"Le chemix creux d'Auvers"

Gachet had been recommended as the right doctor for Vincent by the painter Camille Pissarro. Gachet had treated a number of the Impressionists, including Manet and Renoir, and counted most of them among his friends. He and Pissarro became close when Gachet bought a house in Auvers-sur-Oise. The two men were neighbours, and they cemented their friendship over Gachet’s etching press.

Unlike his artist friends, Paul Gachet had enough money from his thriving practice as a homeopathist and psychiatrist to buy a press and copper etching plates. Once he had installed his etching studio in Auvers in 1872, he shared it with Pissarro and two new artist friends, Armand Guillaumin and Paul Cézanne.

The plates these friends produced were so alike in approach that they each adopted an emblem to distinguish them. Pissarro signed his plates with the emblem of a flower; Guillaumin with a cat; Cézanne with a hanged man; and Gachet with a duck.

Paul Gachet remained an amateur artist. He did not exhibit in the First Impressionist Exhibition, featuring instead as a collector; it was Gachet who lent Cézanne’s controversial “A Modern Olympia”. Gachet’s art collection ended up in the Musée d’Orsay. When it toured Paris, Amsterdam, and New York in 1999, as Cézanne to Van Gogh: The Collection of Doctor Gachet, it became clear that Gachet’s gift as a painter was essentially that of a copyist or imitator.

The same is not true of Gachet’s etchings, which today stand head and shoulders above the tired clichés repeated endlessly by other artists of the 1870s etching boom. That Gachet’s obsession with capturing the essence of a moment was inspired by Pissarro and Cézanne is not in doubt, but his work is original and vital. And it was Gachet, not Pissarro or Cézanne, or Monet or Renoir, who first introduced the originality and vitality of Impressionism to the French public.

Gachet’s entrée to the print journal Paris à l’eau-forte was his friendship with its publisher, Richard Lesclide, whom he knew through their mutual friend, the author Victor Hugo. Lesclide and Regamey, encouraged Paul Gachet, and gave him, in the pages of Paris à l’eau-forte, his only taste of the artistic success he had dreamed of since his youth.

Until now, Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet’s role in the development of Impressionism has been obscured by his presence in the tragic last weeks of Vincent Van Gogh. With the discovery of these etchings in Paris à l’eau-forte, Gachet can be restored to his minor but important place as one of the pioneers of Impressionism.


Fabien Clairefond said...

Cette dernière gravure est magnifique. C'est une belle vision abstraite, mais on sent tout!
Fabien Clairefond

Neil said...

Merci, Fabien