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First Major Monographic Exhibition Devoted in Spain to Henri Fantin-Latour
Henri Fantin-Latour, La leçon de dessin ou Portraits. Oil on canvas, 145 x 170 cm Musées Royaux des Beaux-arts de Belgique, Brussels.

MADRID.- This autumn the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid is presenting Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), the first major monographic exhibition to be devoted in Spain to this French painter. It has been organized in conjunction with the Fundaçao Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, where it can be seen this summer. The exhibition features a comprehensive selection from the artist’s oeuvre comprising 70 paintings, drawings and prints loaned from museums and institutions around the world. Using a chronological arrangement that follows Fantin-Latour’s career through the second half of the 19th century, the exhibition includes some of his most famous paintings, among them group portraits of family members and friends, interiors with figures and realist still lifes, as well as allegorical and musical fantasies.

Fantin-Latour was a pupil of Courbet for a short period, a travelling companion of Whistler and a friend of Monet and Degas. Henri Fantin-Latour (Grenoble, 1836 – Buré, 1904) is an artist difficult to position within the history of French painting in the second half of the 19th century. His group portraits, conceived almost in the manner of manifestoes, suggest an artist passionately committed to a new approach to painting, his still lifes are close to realism, while his mythological and allegorical scenes convey the idea that he was allied to academic Symbolism. Fantin-Latour’s work coincided with the birth and development of Impressionism but he declined to participate in the group’s first exhibition and was never involved in the movement as an active member although he shared many of its aesthetic aspirations.

Possibly for this reason, Fantin-Latour has been less studied and is less celebrated than his Impressionist contemporaries, and few major exhibitions have been devoted to him in recent years. The present one, which is the first to be seen in the Iberian Peninsula, aims to reassess and champion the figure and work of this French painter whose oeuvre has been unjustly eclipsed and who has not been judged over time as one of the great figures of modern art. Fantin-Latour’s illustrious contemporary, the writer Émile Zola, said that his canvases “do not arouse an immediate attraction; it is necessary to look at them carefully, introducing oneself into them so that one fully grasps and is captivated by their mood and the simplicity of their truth.”

The exhibition’s aim is thus to do justice to Henri Fantin-Latour and to reveal him to the visiting public not just as an exquisite, refined and elegant painter but also as an artist of great quality, subtlety and profound sensibility. This is the intention behind the ambitious selection of works made by Vincent Pomarède, Curator at the Musée du Louvre and curator of the exhibition. The works are arranged with a dual chronological and thematic presentation, organized into seven sections:

Self-portraits were the primary focus of Fantin-Latour’s activities during his early years and he engaged in this genre in a regular manner between 1854 and 1861. This introspective activity, which recalls that of other artists such as Rembrandt and Dürer, resulted in around 50 self-portraits in the form of paintings, drawings and prints. They reveal the artist’s profound investigation into the expression of emotions based on a study of his own image.

This was an almost daily activity in which it was possible to discern an increasing reduction in the motifs that the artist would select to paint, as well as his need for solitude and for time given over to reflection and study. “How beautiful nature is! I come back from the Louvre, have dinner, and from 5 to 8 in the evening I sit down in front of my mirror and alone with nature, we say things to each other that are a thousand times more worthwhile than anything the most beautiful woman could have to say. Oh art!”, he wrote to his friend Whistler in 1859.

This almost obsessive passion for depicting himself could also, however, be explained in more practical terms, such as the advantages offered by the genre of portraiture with its “always available model”, “which is precise, obedient and already familiar with itself before being painted”, as the artist noted. More flexible and available than a professional model, his own physiognomy seemed to him better suited to the freedom that he was looking for in his work.

At the Louvre
Fantin-Latour’s activities as a copyist were motivated not just by the need to survive financially at the outset of his career. As was the case with other artists of his generation such as Manet and Degas, this activity was a preferred method of study, interpretation and creation.

For more than twenty years, Fantin-Latour was an almost daily visitor to the Louvre, where he undertook commissions for copies of works by the great masters, notably Titian, Veronese, Rubens and Delacroix, his “spiritual master”. The influence of these painters is reflected in his conception of portraiture, in which he constantly referred to a wide range of Dutch and French models. It is also evident in his still lifes, which synthesise all the known examples of 16th- and 17th-century flower painting.

Flowers and fruits
Flowers are a constantly recurring motif in the work of Fantin-Latour and his flower paintings could be described as the genre that he most brilliantly mastered. Particularly appreciated in England, these works are characterized by their balanced, elegant and disciplined compositions, constructed through meticulous relations of forms and colors.

Fantin-Latour executed his first still lifes in 1861 for the surgeon and printmaker Francis Seymour Haden during a period in England. Seymour Haden’s enthusiastic promotion of these works was largely responsible for the success that the artist enjoyed in that country.

In France, however, these works were ignored or even maligned due to their subject matter and because any sort of commercial success was synonymous with mediocrity in the opinion of French writers and critics of the day. They only appreciated Fantin-Latour’s largescale “homages”, his group portraits, single figures and musical compositions, almost entirely disregarding the flower paintings.

The principal themes of these works, reading and study, were subjects that encouraged a focus on a pictorial description of concentration, mental reflection and silence. They are intimate portraits, imbued with a sense of mystery and complicity, that evolved into genre compositions that look back to the restrained tradition of Dutch 17th-century painting.

They are formally realist works of an almost photographic nature, but behind their apparent order they conceal an unexpected disorder that is conveyed in the self-absorbed poses of the figures, which seem to conceal a mystery.

In the words of the writer Anatole France, these scenes “expressed a gentle seriousness, bathed in a calm light”, adding that: “in them, the figures are involved in a life that is at once domestic and sublime.”

Fantin-Latour’s sisters, friends and the individuals whom he admired received his full attention and the artist devoted himself to them unreservedly when he painted their portraits. However, when he moved away from this close circle and had to execute portraits of unknown sitters he lost all interest and his powers of formal and psychological analysis disappeared.

This marked difference between his private and public works is almost unparalleled in the history of art and is even more surprising in the case of an artist whose reputation is largely based on his brilliance as a portraitist.

Besides, Fantin-Latour produced some of the most notable group portraits within the history of art, returning at the end of the 19th century to the lessons of Rembrandt and Frans Hals.

This is clearly evident in A corner of the Table, loaned by the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, which is one of the four large-scale compositions executed by Fantin-Latour as a celebration of painting, literature and music and which can be seen as true artistic manifestoes.

Fantin-Latour paid homage to the art of painting on two occasions in his work and also felt the need to pay tribute to literature. So enthusiastic was he about this project that he declared: “I am painting for myself.” The central figure was originally intended to be Baudelaire, but a row in the Parisian literary world resulted in a complete change in the concept, and the painting ultimately became a homage to the poets of the nouvelle vague, with Verlaine and Rimbaud as the central figures.

Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Edwards (1875), of whom the latter was one of his most notable supporters and promoters in England, together with others from the 1880s such as those of his sister-in-law Charlotte Dubourg and of his friend León Maître, can be considered among the artist’s masterpieces.

Fantin-Latour endowed French portraiture with a unique aesthetic due to the special attention he paid to his models, his interest in a truthful representation, the simplicity of the clothes in which they are depicted and his exquisitely refined palette. His canvases were restrained, subtle and austere without being somber. They reflected the mood of the late 19th century in a way that few other artists were able to achieve.

Late-blooming roses
Fantin-Latour’s last flower paintings were executed from 1876 onwards in his wife Victoire’s house in Buré in the Orne region of France. They move away from the complex floral compositions of his early years that were influenced by 17th-century Dutch painting of this type. By this date the artist’s intention was not to convey precisely the physical details of the subject, such as textures or effects of transparency but rather to focus on a single motif or concept and the possible variations arising from it. In other words, what lay beneath the surface rather than mere appearance.

As Fantin-Latour’s friend Whistler wrote in Ten O’Clock: “He looks at his flower […] with the clarity of one who sees brilliant tones and delicate nuances in the chosen reality, suggestions for future harmonies. He does not limit himself merely to copying each blade of grass in a lazy manner as the superficial observer might think; in the long curve of a narrow leaf, counterbalanced by the slender shoot of the stalk, he appreciates how grace combines with dignity, and how strength emphasizes gentleness, the result of which is elegance.”

Flowers became Fantin-Latour’s only subject and by his late period he rarely combined fruit and flowers or fruit and vegetables in a single composition. In the manner of a portrait, he preferred to focus his attention on a single species of flower rather than a mixed bouquet. These were garden flowers that he picked himself and carefully arranged in clear vases sent from London by Mrs. Edwards. At the end of the summer, on his return to Paris, he would assemble the works that he had painted in Buré, comparing them one by one with the works in his studio. He would then pack them, without stretchers, in a case and send them to London where Mrs. Edwards had them framed and showed them to potential purchasers.

Musical and poetic allegories
Henri Fantin-Latour loved music almost as much as painting. Far from being an inhibiting and competitive factor, this passion constantly enriched his sources of pictorial inspiration and he established a close relationship between the two art forms in a manner imbued with Romantic sentiments but one that heralded his Symbolist interests.

These musical “adaptations” in painting were the only subjects that encouraged him temporarily to abandon realistic themes and devote himself to the creation of imaginary, poetic and totally original worlds. Schumann, Brahms, Berlioz and above all Richard Wagner were his sources of inspiration.

In 1864 Fantin-Latour presented Scene from Tannhäuser (Venusberg) at the Paris Salon. This was the first of his pictorial variations based on a musical source. With this work the artist had clearly found the subject and aesthetic mood that would enable him to achieve his desired end, that of creating the “painting of the future”. To do so he consciously looked to Wagner, whose aim was to create “the music of the future”.

From 1880, Fantin-Latour’s work was initially indebted to Romanticism then subsequently came close to realism and to the “painters of modern life” before moving on to reveal an interest in the work of the early Symbolists. When he returned to “themes of the imagination” at the end of his career the artist revived the idea of contributing to the “painting of the future”, championing the pre-eminent role of the dream in art through works inspired by religious, mythological and allegorical themes.

In addition, the works of this late period are characterized by a vitality and evident sense of joy, expressed in the use of refined, pleasing colors and intense luminosity. In particular, they express a vibrant, sensual eroticism.

Henri Fantin-Latour (1836 – 1904)
Son of Théodore Fantin, a painter and drawing master, Henri Fantin-Latour was born in Grenoble on 14 January 1836. In 1841 his family moved to Paris where he trained as a painter, first in the studio of Lecoq de Boisbaudran and later at the École des Beaux-Arts. For a period of a month he also studied at Courbet’s “School of Realism” but it would seem that the artist learned most from the Louvre where he executed numerous copies.

With no personal fortune and without an acquaintance that could become his patron, Fantin-Latour was thus forced to paint copies throughout his life, and then flowers, to make a living. Soon, the young artist gained reputation as a copyist of the works of the masters, particularly specializing in the Venetian School, above all Titian and Veronese, but also Delacroix, Géricault, Rubens, Murillo or Rembrandt. He was admired but his skill as a copyist somewhat worried his friends, who were afraid he would turn it into a career. Nonetheless, the Louvre was for Fantin, for over twenty years, a place of sometimes lucrative work, but also and especially a place of study, interpretation and creation.

In 1859 he went to England for the first time in the company of Whistler and he came back in 1861 and 1864. In this country he found the best purchasers for his flowers and still lifes paintings. He painted also portraits and group portraits of members of his family and friends.

In 1836 Fantin-Latour participated in the Salon des refusés and in 1864 exhibited Homage to Delacroix, the first of his group portraits of writers, painters and musicians. Despite his friendly relations with the Impressionists, in 1874 he declined to exhibit with them in the group’s first exhibition.

Fantin-Latour’s compositions on musical themes and “themes of imagination”, from the last period of his career, associate him with Symbolist tendencies. The artist retired in 1876 to his country house at Buré (Orne) where he died on 25 August 1904.

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza | Fantin-Latour | Courbet | Monet | Degas | Vincent Pomarède |

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