By the middle of the 1860s, Henri Fantin-Latour (1836–1904) was paying the bills by copying works in the Louvre and selling his beautifully detailed floral still lifes, and struggling to find acceptance of his group portraits. His first, Homage to Delacroix, has proved an excellent historical record, but wasn’t appreciated when shown at the Salon.
Fantin was driven by Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio and his subsequent lost Source of Hippocrene, which was to have been submitted for the Salon of 1864 until it was irreparably damaged in the studio. He started work on his next group portrait in 1864. Titled The Toast! Homage to Truth, he completed and exhibited it at the Salon in 1865, but it had such a disastrous reception there that he cut it up shortly afterwards.
Many of Fantin’s preparatory sketches and studies for The Toast! have survived, though. They feature the conventionally nude figure of Truth standing in the midst of a gathering of his friends, all clad in their uniformly drab dark jackets. Earlier studies put Truth with her back to the viewer, but in the finished version she had turned round, just as Fantin’s theme had changed from allegory to that of another group portrait.
Fantin returned to his still lifes, bringing Flowers and Fruit together in two paintings in 1866: that above is now in Toledo, and that below in Australia.
The following year, Fantin painted this superb three-quarter-length portrait of his friend Édouard Manet (1867), who was then aged 35 and the leading avant-garde artist in France. Fantin carefully inscribed its dedication as, at that time, portraits exhibited at the Salon couldn’t identify their subject in the title, and Fantin wanted to demonstrate their friendship in public.
In what the critics agreed was a dull Salon, it at last attracted their praise. It was also a visible sign that Fantin was at work on his next group portrait, in which Manet was to be the centre figure.
Meanwhile the steady stream of floral still lifes continued, with Still Life (1869) above, and Still Life of White Roses (1870) below.
In the aftermath of The Toast!, Fantin’s sketches turned to mixed groups and a painter working at their easel. These were initially in response to his patron Edwin Edwards, and by 1865 had already become an interior scene in a studio.
Somewhere during that work, Fantin painted this double portrait of The Reading (1870), one of what turned out to be a series of similar works. What strikes me as being so odd about this is that the woman sat bolt upright and looking at the viewer is wearing only one glove, so as to expose the ring of the fourth finger of her left hand.
During 1869, Fantin finalised the aim and composition of his next major great portrait, in this Conté crayon study for Manet’s Studio in the Batignolles.
This oil sketch for the central section of Manet in his Studio was made that year.
Fantin’s next group portrait was A Studio at Les Batignolles (1870), showing his friend Manet painting with a small group of friends peering over his shoulders. Its debt to Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio is palpable. The figures were identified by the artist as:
- Otto Schölderer (standing, left),
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir,
- Émile Zola,
- Edmond Maître,
- Frédéric Bazille,
- Claude Monet (standing, right),
- Édouard Manet (seated, left)
- Zacharie Astruc (seated, right).
As a window into history, this is unique, showing Manet, Renoir, Zola, Bazille – who was to die that November in the Franco-Prussian War – and Monet in a fictional snapshot; it also inspired Bazille to paint his Studio in Rue de la Condamine, and seems to have struck a chord with both artistic circles and the critics of the day.
Technically Fantin managed to integrate his figures much better, but it begs many questions such as what are they all doing together, and whether the painting is about homage to Manet (who was still very much alive), or the meeting of a gentleman’s club. Bridget Alsdorf writes that it “evokes an atmosphere of anxious enclosure”, which is relieved slightly by the inclusion of a little Japoniste pottery, and the statue of wise Minerva pointing down approvingly at Manet’s canvas.
But substitute anonymous models for its well-known figures and all meaning vanishes.
Within a few months, the group gathered in Fantin’s imagination had scattered with the onset of war. Manet enlisted and served in Paris, Bazille joined the infantry and went with them to his death, while Monet refused and fled with his family to Britain. Fantin made it clear that he too had left the country, and hid in his father’s Paris apartment until the Commune ended ten months later.
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.