How a 19th-Century Painter Turned from Reality to Fantasy

In his early, clear-eyed paintings, Henri Fantin-Latour’s subject was the reality of the observable world itself. Toward the end of his career, faithful reproductions no longer satisfied the artist.

Henri Fantin-Latour, “La Lecture” (1877), oil on canvas, 97,2 x 130,3 cm (Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts © musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, photo by Alain Basset)

PARIS — Henri Fantin-Latour’s 19th-century Realist paintings in À fleur de peau at the Musée du Luxembourg remind us that the real must be processed through the flesh and the blood of our eyes. In his early, clear-eyed (yet lovely) paintings that celebrate the luxury of the senses, it is certainly the case that Fantin-Latour’s subject was the reality of the observable world itself. So, in wake of the post-factual politics that brought so much ugliness to the fore with the foul and despicable Donald Trump, it was something of a tonic to peruse Fantin-Latour’s early, unambiguous paintings of substantial, precise, and graspable realities. The mysterious attraction I found in this enlightening retrospective, which includes over 120 paintings, lithographs, drawings, photographs, and preparatory studies, involved taking seriously what one can easily enjoy.

Fantin-Latour’s still life and group portraits accept the powers of observation while rejecting Romantic, exaggerated emotionalism. In the Realist tradition of Gustave Courbet that Fantin-Latour followed, what is intellectually valued is a certain jubilant, but humble, vision typical of science. But as evident in his relatively early painting of flowers and fruit, like “Still Life: Engagement” (1869), Fantin-Latour replaces mere science-based, objective realism with something more seductive. This is especially evident in the sumptuous depiction of the wineglass.

Henri Fantin-Latour, “Roses” (1889), oil on canvas, 44 x 56 cm (collection of Musée des Beaux-Arts Lyon, © musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, photo by Alain Basset)

Fantin-Latour painted a great number of such flower paintings over his career, as we see with the much later, but stylistically consistent, “Roses” (1889), a painting that demonstrates his talent for the balanced composition of bouquets as well as an exceptional virtuosity in capturing glass textures. These paintings of objective phenomena are like boring relatives we never visit and rarely think about but never doubt the existence of, even though in reality they might have completely changed. Perhaps that is why Fantin-Latour’s conservative-in-style still life paintings sold well and brought him some fame. Indeed, Marcel Proust mentions Fantin-Latour’s work in his masterpiece In Search of Lost Time.

Fantin-Latour’s choice of subject matter — what he makes “real” — does not really matter that much. Painting from photographs, he made some great group portraitures too, such as “Homage to Delacroix” (1864). This large, dark painting is based on a photograph taken 10 years earlier of writers and artists clustered around a portrait of Eugène Delacroix. A year after Delacroix’s death, Fantin-Latour painted it to pay the artist greater homage than he had received in his lifetime. Included in the painting are Fantin-Latour himself (in white shirt, holding a palette), and the painters James Whistler and Edouard Manet. Also featured is the author of Les Fleurs du mal, poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire, who is seated in the lower right-hand corner. This painting, like “A Studio in Les Batignolles” (1870) or “The Reading” (1877), makes use of the realistic but dusty grays of Jean-François Millet, as in his “ The Gleaners” (1857).

Henri Fantin-Latour, “Hommage à Delacroix” (1864), oil on canvas, 160 × 250 cm (Collection of Musée d’Orsay through a 1906 gift by Etienne Moreau-Nélaton, image via Wikimedia Commons)

In his unjustly forgotten early self-portraits, such as “Self-portrait with Slightly Lowered Head” (1861), Fantin-Latour’s self-image becomes another fact of the observable world. Whether stiffly posed or more intimate, such as here, these self-portrait paintings demonstrate his sure hand and acute observational skills that he developed at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he devoted much time to copying the works of the Old Masters in the Musée du Louvre.

We gain a glimpse into Fantin-Latour’s creative process in the painting “The Birthday” (1876), which is accompanied by lithographs and drawings that were reworked several times over during 1875, the year the artist married Victoria Dubourg, a fellow painter with whom he collaborated on occasion. The retrospective also provides a rare opportunity to study the artist’s collection of cheesy photographs of naked women that he used to draw from in preparation for his paintings.

Installation view of Henri Fantin-Latour: A fleur de peau at Musée du Luxembourg (image © Rmn-Grand Palais, photo by Didier Plowy)

Toward the end of his career, it becomes clear that faithful reproductions of reality no longer satisfied the artist. Fantin-Latour undercuts the theory of his earlier work with an unexpected series of fuzzy paintings of fairies — something from outside the observable world. Placed next to or against his earlier embrace of bourgeois vision, this late work dealing with fantasy and seduction is incongruous. Here, desire becomes every bit as objective as cut flowers or bearded men in a room.

With this turn, Fantin-Latour veers towards Symbolism, a movement that was a strange amalgam of the social turmoil of its times, its authors swerving between an aesthetics based on effortless asceticism (such as with Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau) and the decadent debauches associated with Joris-Karl Huysmans, Félicien Rops, and Oscar Wilde. The Symbolists’ political associations were equally split between Catholic right-wing nationalism and anarchist individualism. But either way, Symbolism suggested that reality is a construct, and as such is somewhat fragile. Things neither exist nor fail to exist — they are simply important or unimportant.

Henri Fantin-Latour, “Un atelier aux Batignolles” (1870), oil on canvas (collection of Musée d’Orsay, image via Wikimedia Commons)

This we see in the anti-realist fairy picture “The Night” (1897) and other gauzy works. Nourished by his passion for music and inspired by mythological subjects or odes to the beauty of the female body in the guise of chaste allegories, this work reveals the artist’s lesser-known forays into English Romanticism. Just consider the work of Henry Singleton, Henry Howard, Frank Howard, and Joshua Cristall — all of whom worked at some point in the tradition of small-scale paintings depicting dainty fairy affairs. These artists led the way to the recognized school of Victorian fairy painting, one which had as its admirers luminaries such as Lewis Carroll, William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, and John Ruskin, who gave a lecture called Fairy Land in the early 1880s. Under Queen Victoria, fairy paintings appeared systematically in Royal Academy exhibitions (replete at times with their soft, dreamy, erotic imagery) throughout the 19th century.

Henri Fantin-Latour, “La Nuit” (1897) oil on canvas, 61 x 75 cm (image courtesy Musée d’Orsay © Rmn-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay), photo by Hervé Lewandowsk)

In these later works, Fantin-Latour affirms the palpable reality of seductive phenomena and reconsiders what constitutes the “real.” His earlier, austere Realist art arranged facts and transmitted them to the picture plane; these hyper-lucid paintings seem to affirm “objective reality” as the functional ideal of painting. Perhaps that is why he first tried to oppose Impressionism’s immediacy, the instantaneity of things and their changing appearance in light. In Impressionism one observes phenomena (ironically) too real to be captured in the perfect and complete pictures that are deemed realistic. But, later in life, Fantin-Latour seems to have realized he had ignored the deeper reality of the seduction of the imaginary and its alternative factual intensity.

Henri Fantin-Latour: À fleur de peau continues at the Musée du Luxembourg (19 Rue de Vaugirard, 75006 Paris) through February 12. The show will travel to the Musée de Grenoble (5 Place de Lavalette, 38000 Grenoble, France) March 18–June 18. 

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