Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Scratching and biting: the art of Armand Coussens

The Provençal painter and printmaker Armand Coussens was born in Saint-Ambroix (Gard) in 1881. He studied at the Beaux-Arts, Nîmes, under Alexis Lahaye. Ambitious for his talented student, Lahaye encouraged Coussens to go to Paris to enter for the Prix de Rome. But the 7 years he spent in Paris from 1900 to 1907 were frustrating for the young artist, who spent his time studying the Impressionists and painting on the quais of the Seine, rather than following the stultifying course at the Beaux-Arts, Paris, which even at that date was still focussed on copying antique casts and intended to produce a new generation of history painters. Driven to despair by this academic approach, Coussens returned to Nîmes, to become professor of drawing at the Beaux-Arts there.

Armand Coussens, Amateurs d'estampes
Etching and aquatint, 1922

The nineteenth-century poet Thomas Hood, who trained as an engraver, wrote that etching "begins in a scratching and ends in a biting!" In this vividly expressive etching, Armand Coussens was certainly biting the hand that fed him. In the spirit of Daumier, it satirizes the very men on whom printmakers relied for their patronage, the "amateurs d'estampes". For such connoisseurs, print-collecting was a kind of competitive sport, in which refinement of taste was often tinged with snobbery and one-upmanship. Coussens, who began etching in 1912, had his first success in 1914 when he sold a plate to the master printer Vernant for a society of just such amateurs d'estampes. In 1919 the Musée du Luxembourg - where Coussens had spent so many days studying the Impressionist masters - bought eight etchings and a painting, as well as two watercolours by his wife, Jeanne Coussens, who had also studied under Alexis Lahaye. But this seems to have been the highwater mark of Coussens' career, and a sense of personal disappointment may lie behind the scratching and biting exhibited in Amateurs d'estampes. Although this etching and aquatint is in black only, Armand Coussens was an enthusiastic promoter of colour etchings, which were still regarded as inferior to black-and-white, despite the achievements of artists such as Raffaëlli in the previous generation. He died in Nîmes in 1935.

7 comments:

Haji baba said...

There may be a moral in this for all of us. I think I'd pass out if someone handled any of my prints like that! For some reason, people always want to pick them up.

Neil said...

You can look but you better not touch, as Bruce Springsteen so wisely said.

Edward Farnham said...

Hi, I have a Coussens print of an old man with a violin hovering over, perhaps menacing, a boy who is playing another violin. Another boy in the foreground is playing an accordion. The margins are wide. Do you think I can safely trim them to get it into a smaller frame? This print looks like it's been through a lot. Is it valuable?

Neil said...

Hi Edward. Sounds an interesting print. I don't think it is hugely valuable, maybe £200-300 - something in that area. The perceived wisdom is that you shouldn't trim the margins of prints, but if you want to hang it in a particular frame that it would look good in, I don't see why not - especially if the margins are already dog-eared.

Unknown said...

I acquired an etching of Coussens long ago (unframed, at a country fair in Upstate New York) and had it framed. It's a farmer with his horse and wagon. Can Email you a photo if I know where to. How could we connect for this? Thank you, Dagi P.

florkehond said...

What is the difference between a echting signed in the plate and the same echting singed below the image ? Buntinx Marc belgium
Thanks

Neil said...

The difference is between a print that has been hand-signed by the artist, and one in which the artist has etched their signature on the plate. In an etching that is "signed in the plate", the signature is part of the image. A hand signature below the image adds value; a signature in the plate merely identifies the artist.