Friday, March 14, 2008

The interpreter's art

It’s hard to remember now that to a large extent both engraving and etching were once regarded as primarily a means of reproducing rather than creating works of art. I have an original etching by one of the acknowledged masters of the interpretative etching, Charles Waltner (1846-1925), signed and dated 1905 in the plate, entitled Portrait de Mlle G… C… (the pianist Germaine Chéné). This was only the sixth original etching made by Waltner, who had nevertheless by this time been a famous etcher for 30 years, and was the professor of etching at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris. People were so accustomed to seeing etchings by Waltner “after” this or that master that the portrait of Germaine Chéné is wrily inscribed in the plate “d’après nature”.

Charles Waltner, Portrait de Mlle G… C…
original etching, 1905

Modern means of reproduction by photogravure and the four-colour process killed off interpretative etching and engraving, but at one time this art was held in extremely high esteem. The skill with which an artist such as Charles Waltner could mimic in black-and-white line the line, tone, and very essence of a colour oil painting was truly astonishing. I have at least 16 interpetative etchings by Waltner, after artists as varied as Rembrandt, Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun, Gustave Courbet, and George Romney.

Charles Waltner, Portrait de l’artiste
interpretative etching after Rembrandt, 1906

Probably the most technically astounding are the three large etchings of the Magi which Waltner made in 1876 after Rubens. Both the control and the freedom of Waltner’s line show the hand of a virtuoso. He interprets the art of Rubens with both a minute attention to detail and a swashbuckling vigour

Charles Waltner, Le Mage Grec
interpretative etching after Peter Paul Rubens, 1876

Waltner’s flexibility, and ability to find a true affinity with the artists whose work he interpreted, can be seen by contrasting works after the Old Masters such as Rubens or Rembrandt with his 1904 etching after Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, soleil voilé. Monet himself never took up printmaking, but if he had it is hard to imagine him making a better job of this etching than Waltner, whose soft and subtle plate, printed in sanguine, is suffused with the sun-laden vapour of a London fog.

Charles Waltner, Waterloo Bridge, soleil voilé
interpretative etching after Claude Oscar Monet, 1904

There were a number of masters of the art and craft of the interpretative etching and engraving working in France in the last half of the nineteenth century – to mention just a few, I have wonderful works by artists such as Henri Guérard, Gustave Greux, Achille Jacquet, Jean Patricot, Léopold Flameng, Eugène Gaujean, and Léon Gaucherel. Many of these men were also significant original artists. Sometimes this leads to a delicious fusion of talents, where the interpretative etcher would now be regarded as equally important as the artist being interpreted. Such is the case, for instance, with my etching after Jules Breton by Félix Vallotton.

Félix Vallotton, Le soir dans un hameau du Finistère
intepretative etching with drypoint after Jules Breton, 1889

Of all the artists working in this field, one was regarded by the French themselves as the undisputed genius of the genre. That artist was Jules Jacquemart (1837-1880).

Marcellin Desboutin, Portrait of Jules Jacquemart
original drypoint, 1876

Jacquemart produced many interpretative etchings Old Masters, which show a beautifully subtle skill and both lightness and sureness of touch. For instance I have Jacquemart etchings after Rembrandt, Fyt, Potter, and Ostade.

Jules Jacquemart, Paysage
interpretative etching after Rembrandt, 1877

Above all, Jules Jacquemart was famous for his meticulous etchings of objets d’art. For instance in the 1860s he was commissioned by the Louvre to produce 60 etchings of the French crown jewels.

Jules Jacquemart, Pendule de Marie-Antoinette
original etching, 1877

The catalogue raisonné of Jacquemart’s etchings published by Louis Gonse in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1876 lists 378 plates, to which could be added many more over the next four years. Considering Jaquemart died at the age of only 43 this is a serious oeuvre, and would be an important body of work if it consisted only of etchings such as the two reproduced above. But in fact, there is another, little-known side to Jacquemart’s work – a side that allies him, not as you might expect to the academic Salon artists, but to the Impressionists.

Jules Jacquemart, Chez Berne-Bellecour
original etching, 1875

My single example of this aspect of the art of Jules Jacquemart is the 1875 etching Chez Berne-Bellecour. It was made in the studio of the artist Étienne Prosper Berne-Bellecour, who was one year Jacquemart’s junior. The sitter is presumbably Mme Berne-Bellecour. Working side by side, the two artists each created an etching of the same subject. Sadly, I don’t have, and have never seen, that produced by Berne-Bellecour. But Louis Gonse had the two to compare, and declared Jacquemart’s version much superior, noting in particular its painterly qualities. Gonse writes that, “Celle de M. Jacquemart n’est qu’une impression à l’eau-forte, pour nous servir du mot à la mode, mais nous la préférons beaucoup à la planche plus étudié du peintre”: That of M. Jacquemart is just an etched impression, to use the word of the moment, but we greatly prefer it to the more studied plate of the painter. The word impression is italicized, to make sure that his readers pick up the reference to the Impressionists.

The First Impressionist Exhibition had been held only the previous year, in 1874, so Jacquemart was very quick to adopt the new style; he saw immediately how the sketch-like freshness of Impressionism, and its “less-is-more” aesthetic, could open new avenues for the etcher. In general the staid Gazette des Beaux-Arts was sceptical of the Impressionists, and I believe that Jacquemart’s Chez Berne-Bellecour was the first print published by the Gazette to be described as an “impression”.

Jacquemart’s premature death means that he only had four or five years to produce his various “impressions” and “effets”, and that they have been largely overlooked by art historians. But I believe he made an important contribution to early Impressionism, and that his story once again belies the easy assumption that the established Parisian art world was implacably hostile to the new art.


Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Neil, for more fascinating images and stories. Like most people, I suppose, I'm used to thinking of the history of Impressionism in terms of paint. To be shown once again the role of the print in this movement is to see it afresh.

Anonymous said...

This piece is one more reminder that the internet offers more interesting and accessible articles on the arts than most art magazines. I haven't learned this much since I took art history at the university. Thnaks again.

Anonymous said...

Hello Neil, I have just discovered your site while doing reasearch on an etching I purchased recently. The etching is titled "Une Genoise" and is signed Jules Jacquemart Novem 1877. It is a very nice piece. I was wondering if you could tell me how to get this item authenticated. I also need to know how to preserve this item. Any help you could give me would be greatly appreciated. You can contact me at I can send scans of the etching if you send me an email. Thank you for your time. Sincerely Tim Nabinger