A fleur de peau, at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris is the first retrospective dedicated to Fantin Latour for 35 years.
Famous for his still-lifes and monumental group portraits of some of the most illustrious personalities of the age, including Manet, Rimbaud and Verlaine, Fantin Latour was a complex artist, a stand alone original in a century defined by collectives. The exhibition, unsurprisingly, gives centre stage to his exquisite flower paintings and portraits but also places significant emphasis on his ’imaginative,’ paintings, a lesser known aspect of his oeuvre but one to which he dedicated the last years of his life.
Latour studied under the realistic influence of Courbet but resists all attempts at definition. To some he is the last of the romantics, to others the first Symbolist. His early self portraits reveal an individual spirit who refused to bow to the conventions of the time even if it meant he sometimes struggled to win critical acclaim.
When his first attempt to exhibit at the salon in 1859 met with failure he joined his friend Whistler in England and there befriended the art dealer Edwin Edwards. It was his English friends who encouraged him to try still life painting which soon became his favourite subject and greatest source of revenue.
Despite his success in the UK he returned to Paris. ‘Paris is artistic freedom,’ he wrote to Edwards in 1862. ‘You can’t sell anything but you have people who are freely searching, fighting and applauding.’
Here, in addition to his flower paintings, he began a series of portraits of his sisters and the Dubourg sisters, one of whom, Victoria, was to become his wife.
It is to her that he dedicates one of the loveliest flower portraits on display. Known as The Engagement, it was presented to Victoria after she accepted his proposal in 1869. At its centre is an elegant blue and white vase decorated with floral motifs in the Chinese style. It contains a bouquet of spring flowers, yellow daffodils in the middle of their joyous disorder. To the side a ruby red glass of claret contrasts sharply with the pure white of a peony and subtly echoes the red of the cherries nestling beneath a bowl of strawberries on the opposite side of the canvas.
In portraits the Dubourgs and his own sisters are often depicted reading, or sometimes embroidering. There is an enigmatic quality to them which makes it hard to identify the relationship between the sitters. However, although they are often referred to as austere, his brushwork in fact infuses them with a hazy sensuality.
La lecture (1870) is a discreetly intimate portrait of Charlotte Dubourg and his sister. Seen in profile, Charlotte bathed in a light which subtely catches her forehead and cheeks, gazes pensively ahead of her. Her companion sits close but engrossed in the book she holds open on her lap. The restrained and delicate palette adds to the sense of intimacy.
The first of his monumental paitings, Homage à Delacroix (1864) shows a newly confident Latour, buoyed by his success in England. Painted a year after the artist’s death it is a personal homage to a man who was denied the appreciation he deserved in life. Writers and artists cluster around a portrait of Delacroix which had been executed from a photograph taken ten years previously. Latour himself stands out in an open necked white shirt, palette in hand, amongst his sober suited peers. Whistler can be seen in the foreground, Manet to his right, hands in pockets. Baudelaire is seated to the far right staring defiantly out at the viewer.
It is a deeply original painting in both form and content and shows Latour’s taste for character study, precise drawing and sombre colour harmonies. The grouping of figures and muted colours of rust, black and white evoke 17th century Dutch portraits. It was seen as a manifesto for realist painters but criticised by some for its harsh colours and static, photographic style. Latour paid little heed to his critics and went on to create Un atelier aux Batignolles (1870), a defiant appreciation of Manet, and Un coin de table (1872), perhaps his most famous work and one which sealed his reputation as a brilliant and unusual portraitist.
Renoir, Monet and their peers were much derided at the time but in Un atelier aux Batignolles Latour portrays them with dignity and gravitas. Grouped around the seated figure of Manet, the artists and their great defender Zola are sober suited and reflective. Manet himself holds his palette in one hand, a brush in the other, the expression on his face wistful yet determined.
Un coin de table is perhaps his masterwork. An homage to the literary history of the 19th century, particularly the Parnassus poetry group, it depicts Elzéar Bonnier, Emile Blémont, Jean Aicard, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Léon Valade, Ernest d’Hervilly and the politician Camille Pelletan, the only figure not dressed in black. There are two significant absences, Charles Baudelaire to whom the painting was originally to have been a tribute but who had died the year before, and Albert Mérat, who did not want to be seen with the disreputable Verlaine and Rimbaud and was allegedly replaced with a bunch of flowers.
The portrait is epic in proportions, a fact which yet again brought criticism, but Latour was, as ever, undeterred.
His determination to do his own thing, regardless of critical opinion, is perhaps most evident in his imaginative paintings. Monumental in size they take inspiration from Latour’s passion for music and mythology. Although they found success in his lifetime it is perhaps understandable why they have been neglected by curators in the past. Lacking the intimacy of his portraits they can sometimes appear a little indulgent.
Visitors could best be advised to return to the earlier rooms and bathe in the intimate depictions of one of the most innovative talents of the 19th century.
Fantin Latour A fleur de peau is at the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris until February 12th 2017