As the destruction and slaughter of the Paris Commune subsided in 1871, Henri Fantin-Latour (1836–1904) emerged from his father’s Paris apartment, where he had been hiding since the start of the Franco-Prussian War the previous summer. He then made a start on his next major group painting, which he completed the following year.
Another large canvas, By the Table was only just finished in time for the 1872 Salon because one of its figures refused to appear alongside those who he termed “pimps and thieves”. Although outside the Francophone world today you might wonder who these drably-dressed figures are, this was Fantin’s most famous painting, as it shows all the major avant-garde poets of the time.
The figures are:
- Pierre-Elzéar Bonnier (standing, left)
- Emile Blémont
- Jean Aicard (standing, right)
- Paul Verlaine (sitting, left)
- Arthur Rimbaud
- Léon Valade
- Ernest d’Hervilly
- Camille Pelletan (sitting, right).
For those unaware of the scandals of Paris in 1872, Verlaine and Rimbaud were lovers. This had come to a head only a couple of weeks before the submission deadline for the Salon, when Rimbaud had wounded another member of their literary circle with a sword during an altercation after dinner. The couple were then shunned by most of their peers, and Fantin had to paint in the large floral arrangement at the right of the canvas. The still-absent figure was Albert Mérat, who had founded a poetry journal, and was hardly going to improve this painting’s fate at the hands of the critics of the day.
Fantin resumed his steady stream of floral still lifes with paintings such as this Vase with Apples and Foliage from 1872.
In 1873, a year after his last group portrait, Fantin painted a rejoinder in which he envisioned that corner of the room when the poets had gone, or perhaps had successively withdrawn from appearing in it, in Still Life: Corner of a Table (1873). Although he doesn’t try to create a perfect match with the objects on the table in the original group portrait, there can be no mistaking his references. Perhaps the artist has now sat down with his head in his hands, wondering why he had bothered in the first place.
Earlier, Fantin had been an avid copyist in the Louvre. I don’t know how long he continued this, or returned to copy Eugène Delacroix’s Women of Algiers as a one-off in 1875, but this gives a good idea of the quality of that work. He also started painting sketches and studies for some narrative works.
In 1874, the long-awaited publication of Gustave Flaubert’s book The Temptation of Saint Anthony, written as a script for a play, brought renewed interest in this very visual story. Fantin’s compositional study doesn’t appear to have progressed any further, but at about the same time Paul Cézanne completed his painted account, Gustave Moreau painted it in watercolour, and Fernand Khnopff followed in 1883.
During the 1860s, Fantin had become smitten by music, and a particular fan of Louis-Hector Berlioz, it seems, who died in 1869. His memorial painting The Anniversary. Homage to Berlioz was started after hearing Romeo and Juliet in December 1875, and completed the following year. It includes the following:
- The Allegory of Music (sitting, left)
- The Muse Clio, History (standing, centre)
- Marguerite, from The Damnation of Faust (standing, behind and to right of Clio)
- Juliet and Romeo, from Romeo and Juliet (seated in front, at right)
- Didon, from The Trojans (standing behind Romeo)
- The Angel, from the oratorio The Childhood of Christ (standing at back, right)
- the artist (standing, foreground, right).
Clio holds a scroll identifying the works of Berlioz which are referenced by the figures.
This eclectic work is usually omitted when considering Fantin’s group portraits, but seems to have had deep emotional meaning for him.
And still the floral still lifes kept coming, here with his Vase of Flowers from 1877, which is considerably looser and more painterly than those which had preceded it.
In 1875 (or 1876?), Fantin married another accomplished floral painter Victoria Dubourg (1840-1926), and in 1877 she appears as the woman at the left of The Reading. This is reminiscent of his 1870 painting of the same title, in which both women are sat in silence and not even looking as if they are together.
The following year, he painted his in-laws in The Dubourg Family, which was exhibited at the Salon that year. His wife Victoria is standing at the left, her hands pointing down to her father (I presume) who is gazing distantly as if he was somewhere else. Even the flowers at the right edge aren’t allowed to relieve its drab colours.
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.