Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) first exhibited his Hommage à Délacroix at the Salon of 1864. In an awkward, stilted composition, some of the most illustrious names of the time, including Whistler, Champfleury, Manet and Baudelaire, along with Fantin himself, are seated or standing around a portrait of the deceased artist, Eugène Delacroix. Striking for the stark contrast between the artist’s white shirt and the deeply sombre clothing of the others, the painting would be one of the first amongst many other group portraits that the French painter would produce in his lifetime.
Born in Grenoble, Henri Fantin-Latour learnt how to draw from his father and in 1850, joined the studio of Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran. Fantin spent long hours copying the works at Musée du Louvre, which led to some of his first assignments as a copyist. He is best known and remembered for his group portraits and still life paintings of delicately arranged flowers.
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Musée du Luxembourg’s new retrospective of Henri Fantin-Latour’s works is refreshing in that it goes beyond these genres and explores some of the other themes and styles that formed part of the artist’s oeuvre. Titled “A fleur de peau”, the exhibition unfolds chronologically, with the first room dedicated to some of the early works that Fantin painted between 1853 and 1873. In a dimly lit room, the portraits of artists’ two sisters absorbed in quotidian tasks stand in sharp contrast with the dramatic and gritty (and somewhat unsettling) self-portraits of the artist.
From here, the second section presents some of the most well-known works of Fantin-Latour. There is, of course, Hommage à Delacroix (1864), followed by Un atelier aux Batignolles (1870), his homage to Édouard Manet, and the marvellous Coin de table (1870), depicting several of the avant-garde writers and best remembered for its distinct portrayal of Rimbaud and Verlaine.
The portraits give way to a number of his characteristic, hyperrealistic paintings of flowers. Roses, dahlias, pansies, lilies and narcissuses, impeccably arranged and beautifully painted by the artist, almost burst out of the canvases.
However, the more unusual and lesser-known aspects of Fantin’s works have been presented in the latter half of the exhibition. First is the collection of rare photographs, mostly nudes, that Fantin apparently collected obsessively to serve as a cheap replacement for models. A large number of these photographs were gifted by his widow to the city of Grenoble and are presently held by the Musée de Grenoble. Some of these photographs, including some by French photographer Félix Moulin, have been presented along with Fantin’s reproductions of them on paper and canvas.
The next section is dedicated entirely to Fantin’s L’anniversaire (1970), also known as Homage à Berlioz. The painting that has been presented along with some impressive lithographs and preparatory drawings marked the transition from the utter realism to symbolism in Fantin’s later works. Perhaps the most impressive part of the exhibition includes some of Fantin’s later works inspired by the music of Robert Wagner, Robert Schumann and Hector Berlioz. The rhythm and fluidity of these almost fantastical works – oils and lithographs – mark a definite shift from the rigid style that Fantin employed for the most part of his career. Of particular interest are works such as Lohengrin: Prelude (1892), Parsifal. Act II. Evocation of Kundry (1887) and Richard Wagner seated at his table and his muse or Inspiration (1885), which show the undeniable impact that Wagner and his music had on Fantin’s artistic style and development.
With 120 paintings and works on paper by the artist, Musée du Luxembourg’s retrospective manages to tease out the conceptual and stylistic variations and contradictions within Fantin-Latour’s oeuvre. From the flower paintings and group portraits to the eventual imaginative works, the exhibition presents a visually vivid trajectory of Fantin’s growth as an artist and is well worthy of a visit by anyone interested in late 19th-century French art.
September 14, 2016 to February 12, 2017
At Musée du Luxembourg
Fantin-Latour: A fleur de peau
Best known for his hyperrealistic floral paintings and group portraits of the French intelligentsia of late 19th-century, Henri Fantin-Latour is the subject of a fantastic new exhibition at Musée du Luxembourg, Paris.
Musée du Luxembourg