By 1880, Henri Fantin-Latour (1836–1904) was making his living from selling beautiful floral still lifes, but hadn’t made the mark that he had aspired to with his group portraits of the avant garde. He had married Victoria Dubourg, also a floral painter, with whom he lived a close life which was shared with their small circle of friends.
Around that year, when Fantin painted this Still Life with Grapes and a Carnation, his brushwork had loosened up significantly. The white tablecloth is surprisingly rough now, with obvious brushstrokes, and even the grapes are more painterly.
His portrait of the industrialist Henry Lerolle’s wife Madeleine in 1882 poses her next to one of his floral arrangements. Lerolle was a Naturalist painter himself and a patron of the arts including both painting and music. An enthusiastic collector of works by Claude Monet, Pierre Bonnard, Gustave Moreau and Édouard Vuillard, he was also an important patron to Degas, Renoir, and Maurice Denis.
Fantin had painted occasional figurative works earlier, but as he grew older these became more numerous, and frequently of motifs taken from opera. This painting of Dawn from about 1883 (above) may have been paired with Dusk (below), for which I don’t have a date. These nudes are curiously coy, almost as if he didn’t intend painting them that way. The critics weren’t impressed, claiming that they added nothing beyond the old master paintings which they referenced.
In 1885, he painted his last group portrait, this time with a musical theme. The figures Around the Piano are some of the members of Le Petit Bayreuth, a Parisian fan-club for Wagner and his music, of which Fantin was a member. Depicted are:
- Emmanuel Chabrier (seated, at piano)
- Edmond Maître
- Amédée Pigeon
- Adolphe Jullien (standing, left)
- Arthur Boisseau
- Camille Benoît
- Antoine Lascoux
- Vincent d’Indy (standing, right).
Apart from the piano and a couple of white doors in the background, the room around them is barren.
Chabrier was a composer himself, and a devout fan of Wagner at a time (after the Franco-Prussian War) when anything German was hardly popular in France. Strangely, though, the score on the piano has been identified not as Wagner but Brahms. The eight figures again are dressed in drab colours, and the directions of gaze give the impression of fragmentation. Chabrier looks at neither the keyboard nor score, but at something to the right of the viewer. Lascoux is the only person who appears to be looking at one of the other figures in the painting. They don’t look to be a group at all, but eight strangers who just happened around the piano.
This painting was exhibited at the Salon that year, just two years after Wagner’s death, and became known as Les Wagnéristes. Fantin had been planning the portrait for at least two years, recognising that it was going to be his last large work of this type. However, at no time during its development did he ever see himself within that group.
Although not unknown at the time, the figures gathered Around the Piano meant more to Fantin and his circle than to others. Compare with a photograph taken at the home of Henry Lerolle’s sister-in-law just a few years later.
This hand-coloured photographic print from 1893 shows a musical gathering in the home of Lerolle’s brother-in-law, the composer Ernest Chausson. From the left are Yvonne Lerolle (daughter), Mme Madeleine Lerolle (wife), Raymond Bonheur, Henry Lerolle, Ernest Chausson (brother-in-law), Claude Debussy, Christine Lerolle (daughter), Mme Chausson (sister-in-law), Etiennette Chausson (the Chaussons’ daughter). Fantin just didn’t appear to move in such circles.
Tannhäuser, exhibited at the Salon in 1886, is one of the better examples of Fantin’s musical paintings. Based on the first act of Wagner’s opera of that name from 1845, it shows the profoundly religious minstrel Tannhäuser wrestling with his morals among the pleasures of the court of Venus, after his seduction by the goddess.
This opera has won over many fans to Wagner through its sensuous music, which is reflected in Fantin’s painterly brushwork, particularly in the loose and revealing robes (partly) worn by the women. The landscape behind is surprisngly vague and almost Impressionist, though dark and low in chroma, as if he was still trying to graduate from the Barbizon school.
During the 1870s, Fantin’s output of lithographs had outnumbered his paintings, and he continued to produce many prints, mostly based on musical themes. Here is what I think is an exception.
Fantin’s undated oil painting of Embroiderers Before a Window is tiny and extremely sketchy.
I suspect that was the basis for his developing a much lighter lithograph, also undated, of The Embroiderers. These are quite different from his floral works and his group portraits, and perhaps more closely related to his other figurative paintings and their musical backgrounds. Just when you think you understand his paintings, they seem to have changed.
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.