Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Paying Homage

Today I pay homage to an artist who paid homage to other great artists—Henri Fantin-Latour. Born January 14, 1836, Fantin-Latour knew almost all the great artistic figures of all media of late nineteenth-century France and painted grand group portraits to commemorate that mingling of the minds during that fertile period. At the Musée d'Orsay you can see his Homage to Delacroix (above, from 1864). The late Delacroix appears in the portrait around which all the other artists have gathered. Curly-haired Whistler stands on the left of the portrait while red-headed Manet stands to the right. Fantin-Latour saw those two friends as the heirs to Delacroix’s genius in painting. Fantin-Latour humbly places himself almost behind Whistler, sitting in a plain white shirt and holding his palette—the simple workman amidst the bevy of artists, writers, and poets. But such looks are deceiving, as Fantin-Latour was anything but an also ran in the Parisian artistic circles.

Also at the Musée d'Orsay you can see Fantin-Latour’s A Studio in the Batignolles (Homage to Manet) (above, from 1870). Here, Fantin-Latour more explicitly places his friend Manet upon a pedestal, allowing Manet to sit at the easel as the place of pride, surrounded by fellow Impressionists such as Renoir and Monet. Again, Fantin-Latour places himself in the picture, yet tries to ease back into the shadows as the third face from the right, almost completely hidden by the other artists. Although Fantin-Latour exhibited with the Impressionists and remained close friends with many of them throughout his life, he never became one of them stylistically, choosing instead to paint realistic portraits and a series of fanciful images that would form the basis for Symbolism in France and influence figures such as Odilon Redon.

Music played a huge part in the life of Fantin-Latour. As the Smart Museum of Art’s exhibiton and catalogue Looking and Listening in Nineteenth-Century France demonstrate (my review here), Fantin-Latour especially loved the works of Hector Berlioz and Robert Schumann, but the operas of Richard Wagner truly fired his imagination. The Three Rhine Maidens (above, from 1876) attempts to capture in pastel the power of Wagner’s new kind of musical theater, which swept across all of late nineteenth-century Europe in its bold, all-encompassing approach to art. Although he never stopped painting in the style of the Old Masters, Fantin-Latour always had a keen eye for what the future would hold for art. Sadly, he still finds himself today relegated to the background that he painted himself into, just another face in the creative crowd.

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