Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Keeping Impressionism at bay

The French art critic Léon Roger-Milès is best-known today for his 1897 book Art et Nature, which included original etchings by Pissarro, Renoir, Besnard, and Renouard among other Impressionist delights. So I was interested to acquire a copy of the only book of poems by Roger-Milès, Les Veillées Noires (Gloomy Evenings), published in 1889 by Paul Ollendorf, in an edition of 400 copies. I knew it was illustrated with original etchings. Surely it also would be full of Impressionist masterpieces. Well, not quite. Instead, Les Veillées Noires is an object lesson in looking down the wrong end of the telescope. That's not to say the etchings - brilliantly interpreted and printed by Auguste and Eugène Delâtre - aren't good. Some of them are fantastic. But the artists chosen by Roger-Milès to illustrate this milestone book are a roll-call of talented men who missed out on their place in art history by sticking with the academic aesthetic of the Salon de Paris and turning their backs on the artquake of Impressionism.

Auguste Delâtre (1822-1907), Tristesse
Etching with aquatint, 1889

What sparked this line of thought is the ink inscription in my copy from Roger-Milès "à Monsieur Albert Wolff, hommage respectieux". Now German-born Albert Abraham Wolff (1835-1891) was, from 1868, the principal art critic of Le Figaro, and therefore perhaps the most influential arbiter of artistic taste in France. And Albert Wolff was the most ferocious and vituperative critic of Impressionism. He wrote of the Second Impressionist Exhibition of 1876, "These so-called artists take  canvases, paint, and brushes, fling a few colours here and there, and add a signature." He described the Impressionists as "lunatics" whose work was the result of "human vanity stretched to the verge of dementia". So what would he have made of Les Veillées Noires? He might have been a tad alarmed by the very first etching he saw, Tristesse by Auguste Delâtre, with its murky aquatint sky, but he would have been reassured by Delâtre's peerless reputation as a printer of etchings. Auguste Delâtre was one of the central figures in the nineteenth-century etching revival in France. He started out as a technician in the printing atelier of Charles Jacque and Louis Marvy. He then bought Jacque's two etching presses and established his own atelier in rue Saint-Jacques. There Auguste Delâtre established himself as the foremost printer of etchings. He was entrusted with the printing of the work of Barbizon artists such as Charles Jacque, Daubigny, and Millet, and also with printing the etchings of Old Masters from surviving plates. He also printed the etchings for the journal Paris à l'eau-forte, and co-founded the Société des Aquafortistes with Cadart. Auguste Delâtre had nearly as strong an influence in England. In 1862 he was invited by Henry Cole of the V&A to set up an etching school and a printworks. When his print studio with all its precious contents was obliterated by a Prussian shell in 1870, Delâtre returned to England, where Edwin Edwards provided him with presses and he once again took pupils and also made his own paintings and etchings. After five years, Auguste Delâtre returned to France where he re-founded his studio, now working in tandem with his son Eugène Delâtre (1864-1938). And it was Auguste and Eugène who were responsible not just for printing the etchings, but for translating the artists' drawings onto the etching plates, either in pure etching or aquatint.

Louis Deschamps (1846-1902), Jumeaux
Etching by Eugène Delâtre, 1889

Wolff may also have been reassured by the dedication to "mon cher Maître François Coppée", a conservative poet who would be completely forgotten now but for the brilliant parodies of him by Rimbaud and Verlaine, which were tauntingly published under the name François Coppée and are now acknowledged as that poet's finest work. And not only that, almost all the artists chosen were stalwarts of the Salon, and quite a few of them (for instance Louis Deschamps, Eugène Thirion and Léon Comerre) had studied in the ultra-conservative atelier of Alexandre Cabanel at the École des Beaux-Arts. To give a sense of historical perspective, in 1876 Cabanel's painting Le poète florentin sold at auction for 56,000 francs, while a Monet struggled to fetch a few hundred.

Henri Jules Jean Geoffroy (1853-1924), Sans pain
Etching by Auguste Delâtre, 1889

As Albert Wolff turned the pages, he would have been reassured by the solid draughtsmanship, the classical perspectives, and the familiar subject matter of the images.

Alexandre Homo (1840 -1889 ), Cimetière
Etching by Auguste Delâtre, 1889

Intimations of Symbolism in the work of Henner, Bourdelle, and Thirion would probably not have worried Wolff overmuch. Nor the Art Nouveau stylings of the great ceramicist Taxile Doat.

Jean-Jacques Henner (1829-1905), La nymphe qui pleure
Etching with aquatint by Auguste Delâtre, 1889

Émile Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929). L'amour agonisé
Etching by Auguste Delâtre, 1889

Jean Benner (1836-1909), Alsacienne
Etching by Eugène Delâtre, 1889

Taxile Doat (1851-1939), L'accord
Etching by Eugène Delâtre, 1889

Eugène Thirion (1839-1910), L'épave du vengeur
Etching by Eugène Delâtre, 1889

The second etching by Geoffroy shows how elegantly both Delâtres, father and son, mimicked the style of the artist whose work they were interpreting. You can tell straight away it is the same artist; you can't tell it is a different etcher. And who is that well-dressed man with the hat and the cane, walking past the unfortunate beggars? My guess is that it is a portrait of Léon Roger-Milès.

Henri Jules Jean Geoffroy (1853-1924), Les infortunés
Etching by Eugène Delâtre, 1889

Léon Comerre (1850-1916), Les triolets de Colombine
Etching by Eugène Delâtre, 1889

Wolff might have been worried, though, by Auguste Pointelin's Prière du soir. This twilight scene, brilliantly interpreted by Auguste Delâtre in subtly-gradated greys, is about as Impressionist as you can get without changing your name to Monet or Pissarro. So far as I know Pointelin had no direct connections with the Impressionists, but he certainly saw and was influenced by their work.

Auguste Emmanuel Pointelin (1839-1933), Prière du soir
Etching with aquatint by Auguste Delâtre, 1889

I suppose what I am getting at in this post, in a roundabout sort of way, is that the artists who didn't go down the Impressionist path are not negligible, or risible. They simply guessed the course of art history wrong. They felt safe with the aesthetics they were taught by Cabanel and others like him, and just like poor old Albert Wolff, couldn't appreciate the renewed vision offered by the Impressionists. Wolff now seems like a figure of fun, with his bluff and bluster and his complete inability to understand what now seems to us unmistakable beauty. But there were many like him in the day, and they included quite a few talented artists. What stopped Jean-Jacques Henner from being Renoir? Maybe it was as simple as being 12 years older. But he was still a fine artist, and his weeping nymph, Pointelin's twilight prayer, and Auguste Delâtre's own vision of sadness are my three favourites of this mixed bunch of etchings. All three demonstrate Auguste Delâtre's wonderful mastery of aquatint.


Jane Librizzi said...

The fineness of the work here suggests these artists knew, on some level, what was useful for their work. I think the art of their time would have been less rich if everyone had done the same thing. There are some truly mediocre works on this side of the Atlantic that were created in the name of Impressionism. As Zhou Enlai proclaimed: "Let a thousand flowers bloom."
I share your favorites from this group, by the way.

Neil said...

Jane - You're so right. These artists were not less talented, they simply didn't notice the wind had changed. Probably a lesson for us all. I'm glad we share our favorites. I'm also glad I thought to google Albert Wolff and realize who he was!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

This was a great post. Ihighlighted it today, along with the blog in general.

Neil said...

Many thanks, Amateur Reader - your Wuthering Expectations blog is still my favourite literary blog, even if I haven't contributed to it recently. Oh dear, I just used that ugliest of words "blog" twice in one sentence. But what can you do when all the new words are invented by people who don't care about language? Anyway, when I buy a book with a bookplate or an author's dedication, I always try to find out who the previous owner was. In this case that paid off in spades.

Roxana said...

i also agree about the favourites, adding that i would love to take such photos of landscapes, in fact one can easily imagine sadness and Pointelin's work as photographs (perhaps one has been trained to do this after pictorialism, no?).

Neil said...

I agree Roxana - I think the pictorialist photographers borrowed various aesthetic stylings from artists, and then the artists borrowed them back.

rezkarcfitness said...

Great blog, I love it!
You can check etchingfitness.blogspot.com for etchings.

Neil said...

Hi rezkarcfitness. Thanks for your comment. I have to say I nearly deleted it without thinking, because it didn't say anything about the particular post, included an internet link, and also had this strange "fitness" element. But I did go onto your blog and found it very interesting and worthwhile - so you are selling yourself short! Welcome to Adventures in the Print Trade, and I will put a link to your blog in my sidebar.

thhq said...

Reading this reminds me of Roger Marx, though many of hs illustrators are remembered better than these.