PROVIDENCE — By the mid-nineteenth century in France, the art of making prints was at a low ebb. Photography threatened to monopolize the reproductive function of the print, and there were no prominent practicing peintre-graveurs — painter-printmakers — in the tradition of Rembrandt or Goya. A lack was sensed; a printmaking society was formed by publisher Alfred Cadart and printer Auguste Delâtre, the Société des Aquafortistes; and, remarkably, a revival was engendered. Some of the fruits of this revival are on view in Altered States: Etching in Late 19th-Century Paris at the RISD Museum in Providence.
Coaxed entirely from RISD’s permanent collection, the exhibition includes some expected names in French printmaking, such as Degas, Cassatt, and Daumier, but it is the lesser-known artists who entirely steal the show. Insulated by their medium from the politics of the brushstroke roiling the world of Salon painting at the time, the artworks skew neither proto-Modernist nor conventional, offering a glimpse at the underexposed diversity of French 19th-century art.
Take, for instance, Charles-François Daubigny, whom I heretofore knew only as the Barbizon artist whose landscapes usually include ducks. In fact, he was an avid printmaker with a sustained interest in moody lighting effects. In “Interior of an Inn” (1861-62), for instance, a lantern at the top of a flight of stairs hollows out a dim view down a hallway, catching a feather duster (are they duck feathers?) and a few pairs of shoes in its light. This evocative, liminal non-place is rendered with a welter of parallel marks that seem to revel in the irony of suggesting bright, amorphous light through straight, dark lines.
Daubigny’s prints are etchings, a traditional technique. Other artists in the show employ experimental methods — such as aquatint, chine collé, cliché-verre, roulette — use tin, steel, and zinc plates (instead of the typical copper), and exploit different inks and papers. These produce not only interesting images, but also lists in the wall text of materials and techniques lengthy enough to satisfy any art nerd’s soul — for example, “Etching printed in metallic gold ink on blue-colored, moderately textured wove paper; mounted on sheet with border toned with bronzing powders and printed in white by the artist” or “Etching, aquatint, drypoint, and roulette on beige-colored, slightly textured laid paper.”
The latter describes a print by Félix Hilaire Buhot who specialized in complex, kaleidoscopic compositions of moody, urban vistas, in which he juxtaposes resolved scenes with quick studies. In “Winter in Paris” (1879), a view down a crowded, snow-choked boulevard is limned by a series of sketchy, concatenated vignettes: a postage-stamp-sized scene of stick-figure skaters on the frozen Seine; a pictorial essay in different footwear, from sabots to furred boots; men warming their hands around a fire. Above, in the left margin, are two subordinate scenes tasked with heightening the print’s the emotional effect. In one, a driver cradles the head of his dying horse; in the other, the horse lies dead, awaiting disposal, dark against the snow.
Several of the works are portraits or character studies. Some, including a portrait study by Rodin, exploit the spontaneity that results from the glide of the etching needle over the waxy coating of the plate. Other works are more formal, like a print of an African woman from the French colonies by Henri Guérard, after a now-lost painting by his wife, Eva González (the latter related to a painting by González’s teacher Manet). It’s amazing its wire can hold it on the wall, with all the weight of its appropriations. At the show’s opposite end (literally and figuratively) is Félix Bracquemond’s large and masterful print of the art critic Edmond de Goncourt, all mustaches and sinuous cigarette smoke, at home among his bibelots.
Bracquemond and Buhot were both primarily printmakers. For others in the exhibition, such as Albert Besnard, printmaking was an adjunct to a vital painting practice. Like Daubigny, Besnard pursued different directions in his prints and paintings, favoring facile, impressionistic brushwork and bright colors in the latter. Printmaking seems to have allowed him to tap a darker mood. “Morphinomanes (The Morphine Addicts)” (1887) depicts two women smoking morphine — then a fad among society ladies. They gaze, heavy-lidded, at the viewer, wreathed in opiate smoke rendered by “stopping out”: painting varnish over the etched plate before printing. The women’s unnerving, alluring beauty, the light wisps of smoke, and the richly dark, almost furry lines creates the illusion of a blurred, narcotized experience for the viewer.
It is clear that the Société des Aquafortistes encouraged not only the printmaking arts, but also a sense of fraternity among its artists. “Etching Study by Four Artists” is pulled from a plate divided into panels in which the artists, gathered for an evening, each drew a picture. Another set of prints is part of an etching instruction manual by Adolphe Potémont, conceived as a charming illustrated letter to a friend (an impressive feat, as the writing would have been inscribed backwards on the plate). In the cozy rooms dedicated to print exhibitions at RISD, visitors feel among new friends they wish they had known all their lives.
Altered States: Etching in Late 19th-Century Paris continues at RISD Museum of Art (20 North Main Street, Providence, Rhode Island) through December 3.