Saturday, November 16, 2013

Where even the grass is poor: the drypoints of Jean-Francois Raffaelli

After my last post about Auguste Lauzet, I thought I might stick with the Impressionist theme, and discuss a truly neglected artist, Jean-François Raffaëlli. He's someone who seems to have fallen through the cracks of art history, so much so that though his paintings and prints turn up, all his sculptures seem to have vanished into thin air. I imagine someone will come across them in a junk shop at some point, and have a eureka moment. The interesting thing about Raffaëlli is that when he exhibited with the Impressionists, he wasn't one; after he'd been cast out by them, he became one. This is especially true of his etchings and drypoints, in which he exhibits an exquisite Impressionist sensibility. La gare du Champ-de-Mars, near the bottom of this post, is just about the perfect Impressionist print.

Photograph by Manuel of Jean-François Raffaelli in his studio,
 a drypoint needle in his hand, and a copperplate before him.
Wearing a bowler hat.

Jean-François Raffaëlli was one of the most innovative printmakers of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. He is especially celebrated for his mastery of colour etching, which he championed at a time when conventional snobbery insisted that colour prints were vulgar and not worthy to be exhibited alongside the purity of black-and-white.

Jean-François Raffaëlli, Le terrain perdu
Drypoint, 1894
Delteil 16 ii/ii
Black plate only, with plate tone; the first state was in colour

Born in Paris in 1850 to an Italian father and French mother, Raffaëlli was essentially a self-taught artist, though he did spend some time studying under Gérôme at the Beaux-Arts, Paris. Raffaëlli soon rejected history painting and found his own subject matter in the poor of Paris. He was hailed as the artistic equivalent of Zola, and the city counterpart of Millet.

Jean-François Raffaëlli, Le rémouleur
Drypoint, 1907
Delteil 76 iii/iii
Third state in black only, after the plate had been cut down

Jean-François Raffaëlli, La neige (soleil couchant)
Drypoint, 1907
Delteil 77 v/v
Right portion, after the plate was cut in two, in black only
This and the following image were once part of the same composition (which can be seen here)

Jean-François Raffaëlli, La neige (soleil couchant)
Drypoint, 1907
Delteil 77 v/v
Left portion, after the plate was cut in two, in black only

Although in the 1870s Jean François Raffaëlli was working in an essentially realist mode, his art was greatly admired by Degas, with whom he mixed at the Bohemian artists’ café La Nouvelle Athènes (the kind of milieu depicted in the drypoint Les rapins, The artists). It was Degas who invited his friend to exhibit at the 5th Impressionist exhibition of 1880. Raffaëlli seized the opportunity to exhibit with the avant-garde, and showed 34 paintings, pastels, and drawings. The following year he showed another 33 works. Some of the established Impressionists were less than impressed with this attempt to take over the show, and Caillebotte and Pissarro made sure he was not invited again.

Jean-François Raffaëlli, Sous la pluie
Drypoint, 1909
Delteil 86 ii/ii
A self-portrait of the artist buffeted by the elements

Jean-François Raffaëlli, Les rapins
Drypoint, 1909
Delteil 87 ii/ii
Black plate only

Jean-François Raffaëlli, Au coin de la route
Drypoint, 1909
Delteil 88
Unique state

It was not really until Raffaëlli took up etching around 1890 that he fully embraced the Impressionist aesthetic. The catalogue raisonné of his prints by Loÿs Delteil lists 183 prints, of which all but 5 are etchings or (more commonly in later years) drypoints. Interviewed in New York in 1894 for The Art News, Raffaëlli said, “a few years ago I took up etching. I did not know anything about the engraver’s technique. I simply bought a few books on etching, studied them, bought the material, experimented, and eventually I made some etchings as good as anybody else.” One technique that interested Raffaëlli was that of leaving the copper plate only partially wiped, to achieve a background grey known as plate tone; this is particularly effective in a plate such as Le terrain perdu, where the lower half of the plate has plate tone representing the land, and the upper half representing the sky is wiped clean. The fact that this causes problems for the printer is illustrated by my copy of Le terrain perdu, which has a couple of inky fingerprints in the margins!

Raffaëlli started experimenting with colour etchings in 1889, around the same time as Henri Guérard and Mary Cassatt; when the Société de la gravure originale en couleurs was founded in 1905, Raffaëlli was its first President.

Jean-François Raffaëlli, La gare du Champ-de-Mars
Drypoint, 1911
Delteil 90 ii/ii

Jean-François Raffaëlli, Le chiffonier
Colour etching, aquatint and drypoint, 1911
Delteil 97

Jean-François Raffaëlli was the illustrator, with original etchings, of perhaps the most severely limited printed book of all time, an edition of Germinie Lacreteux by the de Goncourt brothers published in an edition of precisely three copies. Raffaëlli was a significant figure in the Paris literary world; Joris-Karl Huysmans partly based the figure of the artist in À vau-l'eau on him.

Jean-François Raffaëlli, Le petit oiseau
Colour etching, 1915
Delteil 104 ii/ii
One of 100 hand-signed copies on Japon paper, the frontispiece for Loÿs Delteil, Le peintre-graveur illustré, tome 16, 1923

Raffaëlli died in Paris in 1824. As a painter he seems to have been almost forgotten, but his compassionate and heartfelt art has kept him at the forefront of Impressionist printmakers. His deep affinity with the poor and dispossessed means that many of his finest works depict rag-pickers, beggars and the like. Renoir noticed with amazement that painting the same Parisian banlieus the two artists saw things with such different eyes. For Renoir, everything was bathed in sunshine and delight, whereas “In his pictures, everything is poor, even the grass!”


Jane Librizzi said...

Neil, each one is lovelier than the last. I like the two parts of 'Snow and Setting Sun' both ways. 'The Little Bird' makes my throat ache. The railroad tracks are exquisite. Our contemporaries seldom portray vulnerability with anything near this empathy and these make me wonder why. Usually I contain myself but these are such a gift to see. Thank you.

Neil said...

Thanks for such a sensitive response, Jane. Like you, I admire all of these works. I do find it hard to understand how an artist of this quality can be so underrated.

Gerrie said...

Now I know what to look and hunt for Neil. Great information in nutshell lecture and a real eye opener. Thanks.

Neil said...

Good hunting, Gerrie!

Art said...

What an interesting post, thanks for sharing!

Atelier Conti said...

Wonderful Neil. My favorite period, of course, so thank you for introducing me to Raffaelli. I was especially delighted by his portrait under rain, with just scribbly lines to represent la pluie!

Neil said...

Thanks, Nancy. The self-portrait in the rain is one of my favourites too.