By the late 1880s, the French painter Henri Fantin-Latour (1836–1904) was in his fifties, commercially successful, and living a relatively withdrawn family life. He had avoided becoming embroiled in the controversy of the new Impressionist movement, but not really gained much traction in the Salon with his large group portraits either.
He had recently devoted a lot of his time to print-making, particularly of scenes from operas and similar musical productions. His floral still lifes remained popular, particularly with customers in Britain, but Fantin’s motifs started to turn to the more fantastic.
Another interesting example of his lithographs is The Trojans at Carthage, Act III from 1888, in which he shows a scene from Berlioz’s opera The Trojans, or rather the much-reduced version known as The Trojans at Carthage which was premiered in Paris in 1863. Berlioz had completed the original five-act opera just a few years before that performance, but the first staged performance of the whole work didn’t take place until 1890, long after the composer’s death. This print must therefore be based on the reduced version which Fantin would have seen and heard.
The opera tells some of the story of Virgil’s Aeneid, particularly Book IV, and the scene shown here is of Aeneas with Dido, I believe.
Perhaps influenced by some of the paintings of personifications becoming popular on the other side of the Channel, in Britain, in 1889 Fantin painted Immortality, one of the finest of his late romantic works.
The title given to this floral still life from 1891 is Poppies, although the blooms shown don’t appear to be poppies at all. We also have to be very careful in not interpreting them in any modern way: poppies weren’t, as far as I can tell, associated with deaths in combat prior to the First World War, neither were white poppies a mark of pacifism until well into the twentieth century. The flowers here could be carnations, which are well-known in white, but the leaves don’t appear so; neither do they appear to be peonies, sometimes suggested as an alternative.
These flowers do appear to conform to what is expected of their title of Zinnias, from about 1897. These had been introduced from the Americas, and had already become popular in gardens.
Around 1900, at the age of fifty-four, Fantin effectively retired from professional painting and print-making. The following year, he wrote that he would never paint portraits or flowers again, but would “amuse myself painting whatever comes to mind”.
What came to Fantin’s mind were soft-focus romantic visions of coyly semi-undressed maidens, as in his Dancers from 1900. Most appear to have musical or literary allusions, but lack anything specific to connect to classical myths or more recent narrative. Fantin wrote that his dealer was still able to sell them, so why not?
The Palace of Aurora from 1902 is another ethereal painting of a motif which might have come from the older artists of the Royal Academy in London. Aurora, the personification of the dawn, is here being disrobed by the personification of night, those diaphanous robes being lit by the red of the sunrise.
The last painting I have found by Fantin is his Awakening (of Venus) from about 1903, which shares a similar theme. A major influence on his paintings of women in these later years was photography: Fantin gathered a collection of more than 4500 prints, two-thirds of which show major paintings, the remainder being of nude women posed for painting. Could Fantin have been unable to paint these late works from live models, and had to rely on photographs?
In his later years, Fantin and his wife spent their summers on her family’s country estate in Normandy, in northern France. He died there on 25 August 1904, at the age of 68. His widow, Victoria, survived him until 1926. Within a year or two, his work had almost been forgotten, and it was only later in the twentieth century that his group portraits were rediscovered.
Next week, I will look at Fantin’s group portraits in the context of similar works of the nineteenth century.
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.