The Paradox of Henri Fantin-Latour
The canvases of M. Fantin-Latour do not assault your eyes, do not leap at you from the walls. They must be looked at for a length of time in order to penetrate them, and their conscientiousness, their simple truth—you take these in entirely, and then you return. — Emile Zola, 1880
Recently, I’ve been revisiting the art of the still-life, and that pursuit quickly led me the work Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904). Fantin-Latour is a bit of an enigma—he produced work in three contradictory styles for his entire artistic career. He was an expert and innovative lithographer, a painter of portraits, self-portraits, flowers and still-lifes, but his least-known and appreciated works are what he called his imaginative compositions. These paintings and lithographs, largely inspired by the music of Wagner, Schumann and Berlioz, were considered by Fantin-Latour to be his most important work.
The flower paintings were painted merely for the steady income they provided, but, ironically, it is these paintings, which capture the essence of flowers in all their ephemeral beauty, that made Fantin-Latour famous. In his book, Atelier de Fantin-Latour, published in 1919, Jacques-Émile Blanche wrote:
Fantin studied each flower, each petal, its grain, its tissue as if it were a human face. In Fantin’s flowers, the drawing is large and beautiful; it is always sure and incisive…It is an individual flower and not simply one of a type…
Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour was born in Grenoble in 1836—his father, a painter, moved the family to Paris in 1841. Fantin-Latour lived in Paris most of his life, and the Louvre became the center of his artistic universe. He often said: “Le Louvre, il n’y a que le Louvre.” (The Louvre, there is only the Louvre.) Beginning when he was fourteen, Fantin-Latour entered a professional drawing school, where he studied under Horace Lecoq-de-Boisbaudran, who believed that memory was a spur to the imagination. He would set up a complicated still-life and discuss it with his pupils in elaborate detail. Then he would dismantle the still-life—and the students would begin to paint it from memory. This discipline informed Fantin-Latour’s work for his entire career.
In 1854, Fantin-Latour attended the École des Beaux Arts on probation for three months, but was not awarded a permanent place. As a result, when he was 17, Fantin-Latour began to spend his days at the Louvre, copying the work of the masters, a practice he continued for many years. This deep study of Delacroix, Boucher, Fragonard, Rembrandt, Watteau, Giorgione, Rubens, Chardin, Hals, Titian and others shows itself throughout all aspects of his work. The Louvre was Fantin-Latour’s refuge, and in many ways his painting feeds more on other paintings than life or nature.
Fantin-Latour also made a thorough study of the entire French school of still-life, especially the great 17th century still-life painter, Louise Moillon and the 18th-century master, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin—whose work Fantin-Latour is often compared to. (There are some very obvious and distinct differences between their work. Among other things, Chardin’s still-lifes have a strict frontality, with the elements of the subject at eye level, and the backgrounds are painted in his signature warm brown tones. Fantin-Latour’s work has a cooler tonality, with the table creating a more diagonal line, and tilted forward, towards the viewer.)
In 1859, Whistler invited Fantin-Latour to London, where he introduced him to John Everett Millais and other Pre-Raphaelite painters, as well as to Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Edwards. The Edwards bought many of Fantin-Latour’s flower paintings, and found other buyers among their circle, securing him a regular and steady income. Between 1864 and 1896 Fantin-Latour painted over 800 floral portraits, and almost all were purchased in England.
Fantin-Latour painted roses more than any other flower, but he also painted an enormous variety of old-fashioned cottage garden flowers, such as petunias, hollyhocks, tulips, dahlias, larkspur, forget-me-nots, peonies, sweet peas, hyacinths and cherry blossoms. He favored whites, yellows and pinks because he loved the luminosity of the pastel flowers. He had a deft hand with arranging flowers in a balanced yet naturalistic way, and the paintings, with the flowers silhouetted against a subdued background, have an enveloping atmosphere. They have a musical quality—a harmony of value, color and tone—that creates contrast and depth. Fantin-Latour also beautifully captures the contrasting surfaces of the vases, whether Chinese porcelain, enamel or clear glass.
Fantin-Latour’s painting career was about perfecting and expanding upon his original ideas. Unlike his friends Degas, Manet, Renoir, and Monet, he had no desire to move forward into new styles: he was content to be a Realist. Fantin-Latour had an essentially different approach to painting from his friends who were experimenting with the melding of technique and subject matter that became Impressionism. Fantin-Latour saw technique as something apart—not an end in itself, or something to be integrated into the subject. Fantin-Latour believed that technique was to be mastered before you approached your subject and that it gave an artist the freedom to delve deeply. In this he was influenced by Courbet, who wrote:
Imagination in art consists in knowing how to find the most complete expression of an existing thing, but never in inventing or creating the thing itself.
Fantin-Latour’s paintings were an eclectic mix—Realism tempered with Naturalism and a deep Romanticism—and a small dose of Impressionism. He also took some ideas from Japanese art and photography, both of which were so influential at that time. From the work of his friend Whistler, he learned about cool harmonies, the use of gray backgrounds, and to occasionally incorporate some Japanese elements.
In addition to still-lifes and flower paintings, Fantin-Latour painted many portraits and five well-known group portraits. He also painted 21 self portraits, about which he wrote:
He is a model who is always ready, who offers all the advantages, he is punctual, co-operative and one knows him before beginning to paint.
Fantin-Latour was a bit of a loner—in fact, after his marriage he was content to stay in his family circle, joined only by a few close friends. He no longer frequented the artist cafés on the Boulevard St. Germain where he had spent so much time previously. His aloofness often affected his subjects, in some of his portraits you sense a cool distance. However, the portraits of his friends and those within his family circle are especially lovely, particularly his early portraits of his mother or sisters Natalie and Marie, and later his wife’s family. These familial works are dignified, serene and beautifully evocative.
Fantin-Latour painted five large group portraits, four of which still exist. The painting below, Homage to Delacroix, was painted a year after the great Romantic painter’s death. Like all of Fantin-Latour’s group portraits, its composition and color palette is a nod to the great 17th century Dutch portraitists, particularly Franz Hals. Among those grouped around a painted portrait of Delacroix (done from a photograph taken ten years before his death) we see Fantin-Latour, in white, and his friends, the poet Charles Baudelaire—who called Delacroix “the most suggestive painter of all”—James Whistler and Édouard Manet.
The group portrait below includes many of the important poets and writers of the later 19th century, many from the Parnassus poetry group, including (seated, left) Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Missing is Charles Baudelaire, who died in 1867, and Albert Mérat, who, the story goes, refused to be depicted with the transgressive Rimbaud and Verlaine, and was replaced by a large bouquet of flowers.
An Atelier in the Batignolles, below, depicts Fantin-Latour, Claude Monet, Emile Zola, August Renoir and others, gathered around Edgar Manet, seated at his easel—the central figure in what was to become the Impressionist movement. Zola, who was a staunch defender of Manet and his circle against the rampant criticism of the day, wrote:
Around the painter so disparaged by the public has grown up a common front of painters and writers who claim him as a master.
Although Fantin-Latour had not joined Manet and the others in their move towards Impressionism, by painting his Portrait of Manet and this group portrait, which showed these radical young artists to be sincere and respectable, Fantin-Latour was making a strong statement of support.
Fantin-Latour’s intense interest in music began when he first heard Richard Wagner‘s Tännhauser, and it inspired his first image of a musical scene, the first of many done on Wagnerian themes. In 1864 Fantin-Latour said “Schumann is, with Wagner, the music of the future.” When Fantin-Latour traveled to Bayreuth in 1876 to hear one of the first performances of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, he considered it one of the most important events of his life.
Fantin-Latour’s imaginative compositions—the fantasies, allegories and myths, as well as the work inspired by the vocal music of Wagner, Brahms, Berlioz, and Schumann—are the least appreciated of his work. These intensely romantic works carried the most significance and meaning for Fantin-Latour, and it was a sorrow to him that the work got such a mixed reception. The visions that music inspired were also related to color, which he said was “procreative in its nature, giving birth to a thousand things which the eye cannot see and distinct from their cause,” and that spoke “to that region of the imagination which is supposed to be under the exclusive dominion of music.”
On the subject of the musical works, I cannot be objective—the first time I saw Tannhäuser, as a young girl, was for me, as for Fantin-Latour, a life-changing event. As an ardent Wagnerian, I find the images deeply evocative and full of meaning—I can hear the music when I look at them.
Critics complained that the allegorical and mythological works were re-workings of compositions by the old masters and added nothing new. There is no doubt that Fantin-Latour drew on his visual memory from those years spent in close observation at the Louvre when creating these works. I do agree that the accomplished, innovative techniques of the lithographs make them somewhat more interesting than the paintings done in this style. However, it is ironic that while Fantin-Latour’s oeuvre is often criticized for being too much of his time, for not breaking any new ground, these neglected musical and allegorical works were in a sense a pre-cursor of the French Symbolist school of the late 19th century. I hope that even those immune to the charms of these pieces will acknowledge that they are beautifully and skillfully rendered.
I find the eclectic, paradoxical career of Fantin-Latour to be extremely interesting and refreshing. I admire his idea that painting should not be about schools and movements but individual expression. He is considered a secondary painter because he didn’t found a movement or have a major impact on art history—our contemporary standard of accomplishment or “genius”—but I believe his ability to give shape to what he observed and felt with such clarity and elegance definitely deserves our profound respect and gratitude. His paintings may never have been extolled by the art critics, but he was certainly highly lauded by the writers of his time—including Claudel, Baudelaire, Huysmans and Proust—who praises the paintings of Fantin-Latour in The Guermantes Way. Paul Claudel wrote:
A ravishing still-life by Fantin-Latour; a pitcher of blue glass and fresh-cut flowers; each painting bears a hushed silence that bids us still the inner voice.