“Paris is free art, we sell everything, but we have its free show with people that look, struggle, and applaud.” 1862 letter to Edwards.
I was eager to find Fantin-Latour at the Luxembourg Museum, where an exhibit was dedicated to him. There had been no significant exhibit of his work, since 1982’s Grand Palais exhibit.
I arrive and discover his first paintings: his sisters Marie and Natalie, books in their hands, a series of self-portraits of the young artist, passionate about his craft. A drawing catches my attention, he possesses a captivating presence—the features of his face, sketched in pencil to build the outlines that bring his eyes to the foreground; we can’t look away from them.
This great romantic who bears a name so chivalrous, was passionate about music and known for his floral compositions. I am especially interested by his portraits, which he rightfully named, “Studies from nature.”
Music and poetry served as his muses.
He spent extended amounts of time at the Louvre, where he would profit from copying works by the masters.
He finds Berthe Morisot and her sister there, to whom he gives advice.
During each of my visits to the Musée d’Orsay, I stop before his grand painting “Hommage to Delacroix,” a celebration of romanticism that portrays Delacroix himself. Latour holds his palette and is surrounded by Manet, Baudelaire, Bracquemond, Cordier, Alphonse Legros, the art critic Louis-Edmond Duranty…faces that become close to us.
There’s also “A Studio in Batigolles” of 1870. In this composition, the elegant young Bazille, wears superb checkered trousers amidst Renoir, Monet, Manet, and Zola, the musical patron Edmond Maitre, and the art critic Zacharias Astruc who sits comfortably watching the painter at work.
In 1871, he creates the famous “By the Table,” which remains at the Musée d’Orsay. This time, he pays tribute to writers, poets, and journalists, depicting the only known representation of Verlaine and Rimbaud. This portrayal occurs during the stormy friendship of the two poets. Rimbaud’s poem “Vowels” was created just a few steps from the Luxembourg Museum. Today, an inscription exists on the wall of the old seminary of Saint-Sulpice.
To our delight, the exhibit features Fantin-Latour’s photographic collection that is largely unknown to the public. This is an unexpected part of the artists studio work; a time when he photographs models, as they were less expensive and simpler to reproduce and duplicate.
His photographic work of nudes and provocative subjects tantalises the 21st century viewer. This feeling was most likely not the intention of the artist as he worked furiously in his studio, but he was driven by the intriguing modernity of photography, a new and revolutionary medium.
I was thrilled to know more about his personality, and I turned towards the exhibit’s curator Laure Dalon, for answers.
This mysterious, ambitious man that we view in this series of self-portraits, who is he really?
He is an individual drawn to contradictory ideas, of a lower middle class background, and a son of a painter. He said that he spent much of his time enclosed in his studio where he felt more
comfortable in front of a still-life than he did making conversation with a woman. He would make a woman very unhappy, but at the same time he is someone who forged very strong friendships with some of his contemporaries, notably the American painter Whistler. An individual of integrity, he created authentic connections with people, and in his youth had many disappointments, as people followed his route but didn’t go in the same direction.
Was he antisocial?
Laure Dalon: He gave the impression that he was slightly antisocial—which is what we perceive in his group portraits, where he appears in the first portraits but then later disappears, setting himself in the background as more of an observer. He endures several failures causing him to self-reflect. Disappointed by some of his paintings, he gradually establishes notoriety and is reassured by the responses of others. He is a more introverted man, in the social circles of his youth, and later
in his home after marrying the artist Victoria Dubourg. He seems profoundly independent and solitary.
Was he a misogynist?
Laure Dalon: For him, women were linked to things that he hated. He had prepared a painting that depicted a choir of women, but he never followed through with it, as he found women too difficult, demanding an undesired effort from him. Therefore, he preferred to paint men.
Fantin Latour, painter separately?
Laure Dalon : Less known today, unclassified beyond his group portraits, the public knowns little about his other work. The public might know his flowers but with a wrong perception, minimising their revolution and the power of his still-lifes. For me, he is a grand painter that is transitional in our time, as he followed his own orignal path, while still supporting Delacroix, Manet, Berlioz, Schumann, Wagner, Rimbaud et Verlaine…Each time, he chooses the right fights in a certain visionary way, he never chooses the obvious.
A certain rigidity?
Laure Dalon :
Maybe a kind of rigidity that would make him uneasy to be in a show, or social setting, which would surely serve as a disadvantage to him. And he was also an artist of the end of the 19th century that was not among the impressionists, who we are more familiar with. He was a bit on the sidelines.
Laure Dalon :
He is very visionary, with a taste for imagination that meets the taste of his contemporaries at the end of the 19th century. He is, in a certain manner, a pioneer of symbolism, which is rarely said. He didn’t go with the style of the time. For a long time he wanted to make imaginative
compositions, that weren’t necessarily understood because their existence was a little early to be taken seriously, so he set these ideas aside. But he saw it as an accomplishment. He took
pleasure in pursuing this approach, being the most symbolic of them all.
A stunning exhibit to see this fall, I leave you to discover the unconventional world of Fantin Latour.
Leaving the museum, I don’t know if I have solved the mystery of Fantin Latour, but I preserve the memory of his sophistication, his impeccable skill, and wonderful execution.
Beyond my art, I can’t do anything, nothing because art requires all sacrifices, because art is beyond life…
Florence Briat Soulie
Translated by Tess Holland, Wesleyan University, Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Paris Fall 2016.