Old Master Paintings

The Elegant Realism of Henri Fantin-Latour

Henri Fantin-Latour (French, 1836-1904), Six Roses Jaunes dans un Vase en Verre, 1903. The Collection of Dorothea Benton Frank. Est. $200,000-400,000. Lot 203. Important Paintings. Auction September 17.

NEW YORK, NY -- Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) studied painting as a boy with his father, an artist who had been a follower of the neoclassical master Jacques Louis David. In the early 1850s he continued his studies in Paris at the Ecole de Dessin and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Like most art students at this time he spent long hours in the Louvre copying the compositions and techniques of the old masters on view there. On these excursions he met Édouard Manet, Berthe Morisot and James McNeill Whistler, all of whom became personal friends. Whistler would later introduce Fantin-Latour’s still lifes to collectors in England, which became an important market for his work.

Although Fantin-Latour’s coming of age as a painter took place during the heyday of French Realism, he had no interest in the rough-hewn world of stone-breakers and ploughmen. Instead, his “realism” was one of polished urbanity – of porcelain tea cups, lavish fabrics, and cut flowers. He emphasized the tactile qualities of his exquisite still lifes and portraits by setting them against smooth, monochromatic backgrounds, the tonalities of which he balanced harmoniously with the colors of his subjects.

Fantin-Latour’s fascination for detail grew out of the tradition of precise description of objects that had been a current in European art since the 15th century. His virtuosity in depicting the sparkling surfaces of glass and porcelain and the softer forms of flowers and fabric epitomized much of his work throughout his life.

With his devotion to meticulous description, it is not surprising that Fantin-Latour was one of the first artists in Europe to use photographs in aid of his work. One example of this approach is his Homage to Delacroix, painted in 1864 – just one year after Delacroix’s  death – based on a photograph taken 10 years earlier. In this painting he depicted a group of contemporary artists, including himself, Whistler, and Edouard Manet, gathered worshipfully around a portrait of the great Romantic master. Later he would create another such group portrait of Manet in his studio surrounded by a similar gathering of friends.

As the artist grew older his brushwork became looser and more textural. With this new painterly vocabulary he undertook a series of figural works, including such mythological subjects as Apollo and Daphne, Venus and Cupid, and Diana with her Nymphs. These gauzy visions form a striking contrast to the lucid precision of his earlier work.

Painted the year before the artist’s death, Six Roses jaunes dans un Vase en Verre, 1903, is a superb example of his late style. Here the gestural brushwork used to describe the petals of the flowers is adroitly counterpointed on the one hand by the shimmering surface of the glass vase, and on the other by the rough, brown scumbling of the tabletop and the wall behind. It is pure poetry, an understated expression from the brush of one of the most gifted still life artists of the 19th century.

Important Paintings

A highlight of the Important Paintings auction on September 17, 2020 is Six Roses jaunes dans un Vase en Verre, 1903, from The Collection of Dorothea Benton Frank.

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