Progression of Art
Having had a self-portrait turned down in 1859, Woman Reading was the first of Fantin-Latour's paintings to be accepted into the Salon de Paris. He would usually choose his models from his family circle and the sitter in this portrait, one of the artists personal favourites, was indeed the artist's sister. In contrast to the impressionistic preferences of the burgeoning French avant-garde, Woman Reading took its lead rather from 18th century Dutch realist painting.
Painted in muted colors, the canvas shows a young woman absorbed in a book. The atmosphere and subject of the painting was inspired in fact by the work of eighteenth-century Dutch masters and his fellow countryman Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin who is best known for his domestic portraits including those of women engaged in everyday activities (such as sewing or weaving). Like Chardin, Fantin-Latour's women would be so engrossed in their activity that would appear oblivious to the artist's presence and to the spectator's gaze. In its exhibition notes on the painting, the Musée d'Orsay suggests that "The motionless model, the still life formed by the two books in the foreground, the subdued colours scarcely warmed by the reds of the sofa all contribute to the air of tranquillity and silence [...] It gives a foretaste of the sobriety, simplicity and severity that characterised [Fantin-Latour's] later portraits".
Oil on canvas - Musée D'Orsay
Homage to Delacroix
Painted a year after the death of Eugène Delacroix, Homage to Delacroix is an early example of the group portraits Fantin-Latour became so well known for. Still using a palette of muted earth tones, the artist has painted a group of ten gentlemen seated around a portrait of Delacroix (which is based on a photograph of Delacroix taken ten years earlier). Also depicted are: Fantin-Latour himself on the left in the white shirt and holding a palette; James Whistler standing next to him; Charles Baudelaire is seated with his arms crossed; and Edouard Manet, stands directly behind him.
Aside from promoting the artist's preferred colors, the work also shows how Fantin-Latour stayed true to his preference for Realism and a more academic style, despite being close to the most significant figures associated with the more radical art directions in Paris. The painting also provides evidence of his ability to use subtle changes in shade and tone to denote precise lines and the characteristics of his sitters. Although the work was not well received by progressive critics, Fantin-Latour was not swayed by the fashion for Impressionism and his portraits, now looked to as historical records, have stood up to scrutiny and the tests of time.
Oil on canvas - Musée D'Orsay
Tannhäuser on the Venusberg
Tannhäuser on the Venusberg is one of Fantin-Latour's earliest interpretations of contemporary operas, here Richard Wagner's controversial take on the frictions between profane and sacred love. The first of his three treatments of this opera, the image is taken from the first scene in which Tannhäuser has just arrived in Venusberg, the fairyworld ruled by Venus. He is surrounded by dancing nymphs and Bacchantes while Venus reclines across him. This is the moment leading up to the most scandalous part of the play in which Tannhäuser has an orgy with Venus and her nymphs.
This opera was a favorite of the Fantin-Latour (he went on to create a lithographic transfer of this painting in the 1870s, his first serious attempt at using this method). As a painting, and though rendered via a brighter color palette and looser brushstrokes than his portraits and still lifes, one can still detect his commitment to muted Realism in the figure of Tannhäuser. He is somehow placed outside the gaiety of the scene, shown in shadow and rather alone when placed against the pale bodies and pastel hues of his mythical companions. Fantin-Latour's dedication to working in his studio, led to some compositional flaws; the awkward relationship between the bodies being attributed to the artist refusal to work with landscapes.
Oil on panel - Los Angeles County Museum of Art
A Studio in Les Batignolles
Another example of Fantin-Latour's group portraits, A Studio in Les Batignolles is an homage to Manet, who is the central figure of the canvas. Sitting at his easel with a brush, and with palette in hand, Manet is shown as a mentor to the artists who observe him at work. They include German artist Otto Schölderer, writer Emile Zola, Claude Monet, Auguste Rodin, patron Edmond Maître, Zacharie Astruc, and Frédéric Bazille, all members of the Batignolles Group named after the area of Paris where the artists came together.
The work was in many ways Fantin-Latour's support for his friends who faced ridicule and lack of support from the art establishment and general public alike. Their dour expressions, and the sombre mood of the painting, was meant to lend the subjects an air of legitimacy as serious artists with legitimate aesthetic interests and concerns. This idea is supported through the objects on the left side of the canvas: the statuette of Minerva alludes to the respect the artists held for the classical world, while the Japanese vase is a reference to the importance of Japanese art, which has come to be recognized within art history under the umbrella of Japonism.
The work was exhibited in the 1870 Salon de Paris. It is ironic that a work that intended to defend artists at the height of the movement that posed itself as a rejection of the Academy was selected to be exhibited. However, regardless of meaning the painting itself is a fine example of Fantin-Latour's traditional style and abilities to balance complex compositions.
Oil on canvas - Musée D'Orsay
In this work, the artist's future wife, Victoria Dubourg, is the reader. Her share of the canvas is dark which appears to support the illusion that she is lost or enraptured in or by the world of the book. On the right side of the frame sits Charlotte, Victoria's sister. Charlotte (who was at the time a house guest of her sister) looks directly at the artist with a palpable intensity. Her side of the frame is brightly lit and she seems to have almost materialized from the darkness that her sister occupies. On the one hand, The Reading provides another example of the artist's sombre sense of realism. On the other, the composition captures a poetic, almost dreamlike and melancholic mood. Indeed, the image carries connotations of domestic isolation carried in the mental separation between the two sisters.
While this work confirms the Fantin-Latour's mastery of light, color, and composition, the portrait remains perhaps most interesting for historians because of its element of romantic intrigue. Though Henri and Victoria were thought to be inseparable, and this painting was made at the very beginning of their 35 year relationship, the image would seem to add fuel to the rumour that Fantin-Latour and Charlotte were in a clandestine relationship. Charlotte appeared regularly in fact in Fantin-Latour's work leading some to speculate that the two were romantically involved. Here, the knowing look between artist and model could be interpreted as a sign that the rumours were not without foundation.
Oil on canvas - Calouste Gulbenkian Museum
A Basket of Roses
Fantin-Latour received numerous commissions for his floral still lifes. He produced over 500 such compositions during his career, 100 of which were roses. In this example, the artist has painted a dozen-plus flowers placed in and around a wicker basket. Though they appear as if they have been tossed aimlessly, their positioning is in fact intentional. Presented in a way that vaunts Fantin-Latour's artistry, each item is arranged in such a way that the heads of the blooms emphasize their unique structure, coloration, and otherwise unique qualities.
A later example of the botanical series, A Basket of Roses also offers insight as to how the artist had refined his fine-detail technique. Rather than work from preparatory sketches, Fantin-Latour would only paint real flowers. However, given that the quality of the flowers would quickly diminish, Fantin-Latour called on a memorization technique he learned from Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran. He also used a special produced canvas that allowed paint to dry faster. This allowed him to paint many layers quickly, as he painted to record nature at its most beautiful.
This work, like his other floral still lifes, was particularly suited to bourgeois Victorian tastes. The plain background and table surfaces allow the flowers to gain the full attention of the viewer while the uncluttered canvas allowed the paintings to stand out when exhibited besides more "busy" works. As the writer Emile Zola noted, "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".
Oil on canvas - National Gallery, London
The Discouraged Artist
Complementing his more expressive "operatic" paintings, Fantin-Latour experimented with imaginative allegorical lithographs such as The Discouraged Artist. Although lacking a degree of professional finish, the artist signed the lower right corner of this drawing allowing the sketch to rank as a completed work. In the foreground we see an artist - possibly based on Fantin-Latour himself - sat next to a blank sheet. Though his hand holds a pencil, the artist is clearly disconsolate at his inability to find the stimulus to draw. Solace and inspiration arrives however in the guise of the three visiting angels. Since the work is an imaginative composition, and Fantin-Latour frequently engaged with themes of creativity, vision and inspiration, the three angels can be understood as embodiments of those three virtues, all of which were considered primary drives in the artist's inner life.
In addition to being a fine example of the artist's more imaginative side, this lithograph demonstrates how Fantin-Latour's subtle use of shade translated from one medium (painting) to another (lithography). Here, despite the lack of any clear delineation, there is depth and perspective, which the artist achieved in part by scraping away parts of the crayon. The lithograph thus confirms thus the artist's masterful understanding of tone and shade. Commenting on its thematic qualities, meanwhile, René-Marc Ferry wrote in 1904, that The Discouraged Artist showed that "When he found realism too limited and stifling, he lost himself in dreams".
Black lithographic crayon with scratching on tracing paper - Getty Museum
La Nuit is one of Fantin-Latour's later paintings, and one for which he garnered significant critical approval. It is in keeping with his earlier operatic paintings but here the work comes, not via Wagner, but purely from the artist's imagination. Painted with free, fluid brushstrokes, and with a delicate, light palette, the central figure of La Nuit is a reclining female nude whose sensuality symbolizes the night (La Nuit). An angel can be seen in the lower right corner looking out beyond the edge of the canvas; his red wings, coupled with the female figure's (possibly concerned) expression, lend the painting a mysterious quality. The background is nondescript, contributing to the otherworldliness of the work. Indeed, the caption in Fantin-Latour's exhibition catalogue, organised by the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris in 1982-1983, read as follows: "On the left side of the painting, he uses light effects to create an area of abstraction, with no formal structure or definition, similar to a Turner painting or Monet's Thaw, whereas he paints the mist with streaks of blue, carmine and yellow mixed directly on the canvas, just like Renoir ".
The painting is in fact a slightly darker version of an 1895 painting of the same name which was also critically acclaimed (possibly prompting Fantin-Latour to produce a second, more refined, version). The work demonstrates Fantin-Latour's willingness to move beyond the realms of realism and to engage with the poetic and sensuous traits of Symbolism. Such was the painting's quality, it was purchased for the State of France and on its presentation at the 1897 Salon the critic Gustave Geffroy cooed: "Night: no woman ever lay more softly, in a painted heaven, enveloped in waves of soft clouds".
Oil on canvas - Musée D'Orsay