Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The etchings of Alexandre Falguière

Janine Bailly-Herzberg’s Dictionnaire de l’estampe en France 1830-1950, which is one of my most trusted reference books, credits the sculptor Alexandre Falguière (1831-1900) with just two etchings: Les nains mendiants and Caïn et Abel. I’ve already reproduced Les nains mendiants in my post Two intriguing portfolios, and re-post it here for the sake of completeness. It was executed in 1876 and published that year by Cadart (under the title Deux idiots mendiants), and republished in 1888 by L’Artiste, the year that Falguière exhibited his painting Les nains mendiants in the Paris Salon.

Alexandre Falguière, Deux idiots mendiants (Les nains mendiants - Grenade)
as published by Cadart in 1876
the signature and date are reversed in the plate

Caïn et Abel was also executed in 1876, the year in which Falguière exhibited a sculpture in plaster of the same subject at the Salon. Whether these figures were ever cast in bronze I don’t know; according to Bénézit, Falguière also made a painting of this subject. Bailly-Herzberg dates the first publication of this etching to 1902, when it was issued by the Revue de l’Art ancien et moderne, and also included in Léonce Bénédite’s Alexandre Falguière suivi d’un catalogue de ses oeuvres. I have a copy of Caïn et Abel as published by the Revue de l’Art ancien et moderne, and also a second, published in 1876 by the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. Until recently required to look closely at these two prints, I had assumed they were both editions of the same etched plate, one more contrasty than the other, and that the prior publication of the etching in the Gazette had simply been overlooked. But I now realise that they are in fact two different etchings, bringing Falguière’s meagre total of original prints up to three.

Alexandre Falguière, Caïn et Abel
as published by the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1876
unsigned but with printed credits below

The version published in 1876 has the figures of Cain and Abel emerging in a dazzle of light from a fiercely cross-hatched gloom, and bears no signature. The version published in 1902 is signed and dated in the plate, and in it the murderer Cain merges with the dark background, while the light falls on the body of his victim. Both versions are very powerful – the 1876 more intense, the 1902 freer and wilder.

Alexandre Falguière, Caïn et Abel
as published by the Revue de l'Art ancien et moderne in 1902
signed and dated in the plate

Falguière’s interest in etching seems to have been short-lived, which is a shame as all three of these prints show an impressive natural command of the medium. My feeling is that he used these three etching plates to explore his ideas about subjects he was intending to treat in other media (Les nains mendiants as a painting, and Caïn et Abel as a sculpture and as a painting), so that they are essentially preliminary studies rather than etchings after finished works.

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