Painters of note in France during the latter half of the nineteenth century are generally quite easy to classify. There were Impressionists, some of whom became Divisionists and/or Post-Impressionists, Realists and Naturalists (whose work I have covered quite extensively here), the Nabis at the end of the century, and those who adhered to academic styles. Then there are a few artists who don’t really fit any of those, like Edgar Degas, who was a member of the Impressionists but didn’t paint in Impressionist style.
The misfit whose career and work I have chosen for this series of articles is even stranger than Degas: close to the Impressionists and major figures like Manet and Whistler, he spent much of his career painting exquisite and lucrative floral still lifes. His best-known paintings now are a handful of group portraits, and only late in his career did he show any signs of ‘loosening up’ from his rigorous academic style. He’s Henri Fantin-Latour.
Ignace Henri Jean Théodore Fantin-Latour, to give him his full name, was born in the city of Grenoble, in the far east of France adjacent to some of the most spectacular scenery at the edge of the Alps, in 1836. As his father was an artist, he was taught to draw and paint at an early age, and progressed to enter the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1854.
As his skills developed there, and like many other students, Fantin copied paintings in the Louvre. The early paintings of his which have survived are a series of portraits, and he made commissioned copies of old masters from 1856 onwards. Among his best-sellers was the huge Veronese Wedding Feast at Cana (1562-63), of which he made no less than five large-scale copies over a period of eleven years. That seems to have been a successful trade for other painters too: Delacroix had painted at least two slightly modified versions.
In the summer of 1858, when he was copying in the Louvre, Fantin met Whistler, and the two became great friends. By this time, Fantin moved in circles which included Carolus-Duran, who was later to teach John Singer Sargent, Alphonse Legros, Édouard Manet, and the writers and critics Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier.
Although Fantin later had a preference for the paintings of Delacroix, early in his career he also seems to have been influenced by Gustave Courbet. His early self-portraits may reflect that, as in this Self-portrait Aged 23 from 1859. Fantin also apparently painted his two sisters at this time, when he was back home in Grenoble.
This Self-portrait from the following year is surprisingly rough in its facture.
As with many other painters, he made some simple still lifes, such as his Still Life with Mustard Pot from 1860, which is also painterly.
His Self-Portrait made in black chalk in 1861 was, like most of the others, given to a friend, in this case someone called Myiounet, an unusual name perhaps associated with Monaco.
This Self-Portrait from 1861 is more reminiscent of Courbet’s Desperate Man.
Then in the early 1860s, Fantin started painting floral still lifes, such as this Still Life with Chrysanthemums from 1862. These were the first of his original works to attract attention from prospective purchasers, and his friend Whistler promoted them when he was visiting London, resulting in early sales to Britain.
In 1863, Eugène Delacroix died, and Fantin was inspired to gather his friends for a painting with which to commemorate him. He didn’t undertake this lightly, but researched Delacroix’s writings and engaged in a long series of sketches in his quest for the right composition. This fairly early oil study for Homage to Delacroix was made in 1863-64, and shows one possibility which he rejected: an irregular group around a statuary bust of Delacroix.
As Bridget Alsdorf has written, Fantin was primarily trying to solve the problem of how to represent the artist’s relationship to the group of friends.
His eventual solution, in the finished Homage to Delacroix from 1864, includes the following figures:
- Louis Cordier (standing, left),
- Alphonse Legros,
- James Abbott McNeill Whistler,
- Édouard Manet,
- Félix Bracquemond,
- Albert de Balleroy (standing, right),
- Louis Edmond Duranty (seated, left),
- Henri Fantin-Latour,
- Jules Champfleury,
- Charles Baudelaire (seated, right).
Like Fantin’s later group portraits, this is a historical record of considerable importance. As a work of art, it is ambitious, and demonstrates the difficulties of such group portraits. Duranty looks so detached that he isn’t there at all, and the relatively inexperienced Fantin struggles to make all the figures appear part of an integral and instantaneous image.
Its colours are low-key, reaching a peak in the flowers below Delacroix’s portrait, where they conveniently link to his new theme of floral paintings. It’s also unfortunate that the image he used for Delacroix’s painting is one which its subject was quite unhappy with. That said, this is one of the most important paintings of Fantin’s career and demonstrated how quickly his skills had developed.
Around that time, Fantin painted Peonies in a Vase (c 1864), as another step in his more commercial career.
In 1865, Fantin was fully engaged painting more still lifes. His Flowers and Fruits shows his progress here.
Another from that same year is Still Life with a Carafe, Flowers and Fruit, where he explores the optical properties of different surfaces more.
In the next article, I will look at how his figurative paintings developed through into the 1870s, against a background of flowers.
Bridget Alsdorf (2013) Fellow Men, Fantin-Latour and the problem of the Group in Nineteenth Century French Painting, Princeton UP. ISBN 978 0 691 15367 4.
I am very grateful to @SuperNormaled for prompting me to look at Fantin in more detail.