Sunday, November 25, 2007

A great etcher before God

Before Impressionism shook everything up, the printmakers of the French etching revival had two icons. The first was Rembrandt. Many etchers – for instance Norbert Goeneutte – started out by copying Rembrandts. Rembrandt’s mastery of light and shade, and his masterly use of the drypoint needle to add intricate detail to the etched plate, were the model to be followed, and his very name had a talismanic quality.

Lisière d’un bois Vendéen
Etching after Victor Hugo by Henri Guérard, 1876

The second icon was the writer Victor Hugo. Etchers found in Hugo’s prose the exact literary equivalent of an etching plate, deeply bitten, fiercely cross-hatched, brimming with tension and possibility. Artists such as Célestin François Nanteuil found a never-failing well of inspiration in Hugo’s work.

This veneration of Hugo reached its apogee in the short-lived weekly journal Paris à l’eau-forte, which was published between 1873-1876. In 1876 its editor, Richard Lesclide, pronounced Victor Hugo the greatest etcher of the century. He argued that, “It is not necessary, to be a great etcher before God, to produce etchings.”

Hugo was in fact a keen amateur artist – many of his drawings now hang in the Maison de Victor Hugo in the Place des Vosges. But he never did take up etching. To make up for this deficiency, Lesclide commissioned the great etcher Henri Guérard to produce two etchings after drawings made by Hugo while working on his novel Quatre-vingt-treize.

Une forêt dans le bocage
Etching after Victor Hugo by Henri Guérard, 1876

These are very powerful works, both showing woodland scenes. Guérard, as well as producing fine work in his own right, was highly-regarded as an interpretative etcher; he was for instance entrusted with the task of making etchings after paintings by Édouard Manet.

When Paris à l’eau-forte failed, Richard Lesclide became Victor Hugo’s secretary; the Boswell to his Johnson.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting to know.