In the first of these three articles looking at still life paintings by artists better-known for other genres, I looked at those of William Merritt Chase. In his early career, his still life paintings proved a good way of earning some money. For today’s artist, Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) they were the mainstay of his income for his entire career, although today he’s better-known for his enigmatic group portraits.
Fantin-Latour painted most of those group portraits over a period of just eight years out of a career which spanned more than forty. They were almost universally received badly by the critics, so much so that he cut one of them up after it had met with derision at the Salon. During his lifetime, his most successful paintings were a long series of floral still lifes, which he started painting soon after 1860 and continued until his ‘retirement’ around 1900. This article considers that mainstay of his work.
Early in his career, Fantin-Latour met with success in two types of paintings. He made copies in the Louvre, most notably full-sized replicas of Veronese’s huge masterpiece Marriage Feast at Cana (1562-3), of which he eventually made and sold at least five. Floral still lifes, such as this Still Life with Chrysanthemums from 1862, were the first of his original works to attract attention from prospective purchasers. His friend Whistler promoted them when he was visiting London, resulting in early sales to Britain which seem to have been sustained throughout his career.
He added different forms to basic vases of flowers against a plain background, as in Flowers and Fruits from 1865. As was traditional among still life artists, the fruit, polished tabletop, bowl and knife also introduce different surface effects.
That same year, in Still Life with a Carafe, Flowers and Fruit, he added the more complex optical properties of glassware, with its reflections and transmitted light.
His paintings of Flowers and Fruit continued through 1866, above and below, with increasingly sophisticated combinations of forms, textures and surfaces. The flowers are here more unusual, and painted in intimate detail, as precise as might appear in a dedicated botanical painting, but arranged into more extensive compositions.
At the end of the 1860s, his brushwork seems to have become more painterly, as seen in this Still Life from 1869. But each petal in the flowers is still meticulously formed individually, with subtle changes in colour. In contrast to his earlier arrangements, he includes just one variety of white flower here, leaving the fruit to expand the range of colour, texture and reflection.
In Vase with Apples and Foliage from 1872, the flowers have gone altogether, and the whole painting has a coarser facture, as if he might have been leaning towards Impressionism.
The following year, he painted his response to the fraught experience he had with his group portrait of the literary avant garde in 1872, Still Life: Corner of a Table (1873). Here he extended his composition to show the same table and objects which had featured in the group portrait, now lacking its figures. This is Fantin’s only link between his flower paintings and group portraits, although he had included small floral displays in the latter, and might be symbolising his abandonment of formal arrangements of figures to return to his world of still life.
In the mid-1870s, Fantin married the accomplished floral painter Victoria Dubourg (1840-1926), who seems to have moved in the same artistic circles in the late 1860s, when her portrait was painted by Edgar Degas. Sadly very few of her own paintings are accessible now, and none is reliably dated. Her motifs and style appear similar to those of her husband, and some have suggested that floral still lifes which he signed may have been largely painted by his wife.
A single bloom marks the return of flowers in Fantin’s Still Life with Grapes and a Carnation, from about 1880. His brushwork remains loose, with the white tablecloth with obvious marks, and even the grapes are quite painterly.
This mis-titled painting not of Poppies, nor peonies for that matter, from a decade later shows a return to a more meticulous realism, again showing a single variety of white flower, each bloom rendered petal by petal.
This last floral still life of Zinnias, from about 1897, takes his motif and style back to the 1860s, with a riot of different coloured blooms, and no fruit or other distractions apart from its glass vase. Even the surface on which the vase stands merges in with the neutral background, as if the floral display is suspended in midair.
Fantin’s flowers are superb paintings, and it’s not hard to see why they proved so successful with buyers. Unlike his group portraits, they each appear thoroughly real, painted with insight and feeling. Although it’s always hard to gain insight into someone more than a century after their death, contemporary accounts of Fantin portray him as a bit of a loner who spent most of his time painting or with his small family circle.
The evidence from his paintings is that he related best to his floral arrangements, not the figures who featured in his group portraits. His late soft-focus paintings of women in myth and musical performance may have been his fondest fantasies when he retired, but Fantin had a feel for flowers which shines through in each of these paintings. To see his art, look not at his groups of human figures, but at these crowds of flowers and fruit.