Friday, March 28, 2008

Sketches and impressions

Thinking about the natural affinity of the etching plate for the kind of quick loose sketches that one might fairly call Impressionist, which I discussed at the end of the last entry in the context of Jules Jacquemart, my mind turned to the great Dutch realist Jozef Israëls (1824-1911; father and teacher of the painter Isaac Israëls).

Jozef Israëls

Jozef Israëls was born into a Jewish family in Groningen. His parents wanted him to be a rabbi and Israëls had to struggle to realise his dream of becoming an artist. He studied first at the private Minerva Drawing Academy in Groningen under J. J. G. van Wicheren and C. B. Buys, before entering the Amsterdam atelier of the history painter Jan Adam Kruseman. In 1845 Israëls went to Paris, where he studied with Delaroche, Vernet, Pradier, and especially Picot. The influences of first Kruseman and then Picot directed him towards the Romantic tradition of history painting, but although he produced some work in this tradition (debuting at the Salon de Paris in 1855 with Le prince d’Orange s’opposant à l’exécution des décrets du roi d’Espagne), he soon abandoned this style, in favour of the plein-air painting he had encountered at Barbizon in 1846 and 1853, and in Oosterbeek, the Dutch equivalent of Barbizon.

Ferdinand Leenhoff, Les bons camarades
Interpretative etching after Jozef Israëls, 1879

From 1855, Israëls made frequent sketching trips to the little fishing village of Zandevoort. Fishermen became a favourite motif in his art, along with landscapes and scenes of peasant life.

Philip Zilcken, The sleeping child
Interpretative etching after Jozef Israëls, 1888

In 1871 he settled in The Hague, where he remained for the rest of his life. In his day Jozef Israëls enjoyed a huge success, both in Holland and in France. He remains one of the towering figures of the Hague School; the Dutch equivalent of Millet. Vincent van Gogh revered Israëls and Millet equally, often linking their names. In a letter of March 1884 he described them, along with Corot, Daubigny and Dupré, as “the great forerunners”.

Philip Zilcken, A young sempstress
Interpretative etching after Jozef Israëls, 1898

To call Israëls the painter an Impressionist would be absurd. It was the Dutch public’s appreciation of the realist works of artists such as Israëls that left them cold to the new art when Theo van Gogh tried to introduce Impressionism to Holland in 1888. The Dutch found the work “slapdash, ugly, badly painted, badly drawn, badly coloured, altogether miserable.” Vincent wrote to Theo, “that had also been my impression when I first arrived in Paris, my head full of Mauve, Israëls and other accomplished painters.”

Marcellin Desboutin, Les travailleurs de la mer
Interpretative drypoint after Jozef Israëls, 1889

My interpretative drypoint after Israëls’ Les travailleurs de la mer may serve to illustrate the solidity and definition of his work. Even though the drypoint itself is the work of the minor Impressionist Marcellin Desboutin, its brand of realism is recognisably pre-Impressionist.

Jozef Israëls, Enfants sur la plage
Original etching, 1879

But with Israëls’ own etchings, we are suddenly surprised by a lightness of touch that is decidedly Impressionist in its aims and its techniques, with all the details simply indicated by quick fresh lines rather than laboriously delineated. Israëls became interested in etching in 1870, and produced in all 30 plates, which are described and illustrated in the catalogue raisonné by H. J. Hubert, The Etched Work of Jozef Israëls. Israëls treated his etchings rather like sketches, printing them in small numbers to give to friends. They were not usually formally editioned, but occasionally Israëls allowed art revues such as the Gazette des Beaux-Arts or L’Art, to print editions of them. This is the source of my proofs of two delightful etchings by Jozef Israëls, Enfants sur la plage and À Scheveningue.

Jozef Israëls, À Scheveningue
Original etching, 1879

Writing of the etchings of Israëls in L’Art in 1879, the critic Charles Tardieu describes them as a painter’s etchings, and deliberately links them to Impressionism by describing them as “esquisses et impressions”, sketches and impressions. The confidence and rapidity with which Israëls has sketched these scenes onto the etching plate gives a sense of intimacy and immediacy. There is also a real tenderness in his depiction of the bathing children and the resting fisherwoman. To my mind these simple etchings rank high in the art of Jozef Israëls, marrying the plein-air philosophy of the Barbizon and Hague Schools with the freshness and freedom of the Impressionists.

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.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Lifting the veil

I recently acquired a set of lithographs by the artist Pierre Jacquot, about whom I know very little – but that little, I know in surprising detail. I know that he was born in Nancy, France, on the 15th of May 1929, at precisely a quarter past four in the morning.

Pierre Jacquot, Nostradamus, original lithograph

Somewhere on the web there is a full astrological chart for Jacquot, and in that lies the clue to the intrinsic interest of my lithographs. They were created to illustrate a lavish 1980 edition of the prophetic quatrains of Nostradamus: Centuries et autre prophéties de Nostradamus, présentées et commentées par Anne et André Barbault. This was part of the series Collection Gravure Contemporaine published by the art publisher Club du Livre, under the direction of Philippe Lebaud.

Centuries et autre prophéties de Nostradamus

The book was published in a total of 390 numbered copies: 22 on Japon nacré, 55 on handmade Auvergne, and 313 on Arches. There were also a small number of hors-commerce (not-for-sale) copies reserved for the artist and others who worked on the book, marked O.

Mine is one of these hors-commerce copies. It is printed on Japon nacré, the finest paper, and like the 22 numbered copies on Japon, it comes with a separate box containing two extra suites of loose lithographs: a signed suite on Auvergne, and an unsigned suite on Arches. The 55 copies on Auvergne had suites on Japon and Arches; the 313 copies on Arches were simply bound books.

The signed justification page

The 22 numbered copies on Japon also had an original gouache, which my copy probably never possessed (the whole thing is in near-perfect condition, and looks as it has never been opened or looked at). Each copy of the book was signed in pencil at the colophon by the artist, who signs simply Jacquot.

Pierre Jacquot, The Fool, original lithograph

So my starting point for looking at these remarkable lithographs – which were separately printed by Jacques Mourlot - was to try to understand their relationship to the text of Nostradamus. I was struck immediately by the strong astrological and tarot imagery used by Jacquot. I thought this was a rather clever solution to the problem of illustrating this incomprehensible text. The images are original and enigmatic, with a haunting edge of strangeness, almost as if the artist is peering into our world from some parallel dimension.

Pierre Jacquot, The Star, original lithograph

Then, searching for further information on Pierre Jacquot on the net, I stumbled across a site reproducing the same images, but describing them as a tarot set. Evidently the 22 main Nostradamus lithographs, not counting the frontispiece portrait of Nostradamus, were also issued as a Tarot portfolio, in 120 signed and numbered copies, printed on Arches. I do not know, but am guessing that they were printed by the same printer, for the same publisher, at the same time, as the Nostradamus sets. So far as I can tell the images were never published as a conventional tarot deck, but only as a print portfolio.

The justification page of Centuries makes no mention of the existence of the Tarot portfolio. I suspect this was a case of a publisher successfully killing two birds with one stone, and that once Jacquot decided to illustrate the Nostradamus book with tarot images, it seemed a good idea to also issue them separately to the tarot-collecting market.

Pierre Jacquot, The Tower, original lithograph

I’m not going to go into a learned discussion of the origins and meaning of the tarot, as it would all have to be stolen from Wikipedia (which has an excellent and informative article). I’m just pleased to have discovered Pierre Jacquot’s work, and intrigued to know if anyone out there has further information about it.