- The Poetic Constructions of Henri Fantin-Latour [Biography]
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Ignace Henri Theodore Fantin-Latour

For art connoisseurs who love flowers, and those art lovers who also happen to have a green thumb, there's a very good chance their favourite artist may be Henri Fantin-Latour (pronounced FAWN-TAWN la-TOUR). They were his stock in trade. The vast majority of his works (oils and lithographs) depict "God's art," as some have called them. His Still Life: Corner of a Table, painted in 1873, is quite typical. A table is set with a brilliantly lit white cloth, upon which are the silver, glass, china, and food elements of a light brunch. In the foreground is a large flowering plant I wish I could identify. It's all as elegant and carefully contrived as a stage set in its attempt to look casual. And the overall effect is exquisitely and delicately beautiful. It's not tromp l'oeil, however. There is too much depth for that. It would be more closely akin to what we now call "photo-realism," back at a time when photography was only just beginning to effect the way some painters painted. Did he use photos? Possibly, but in any case, Henri painted dozens of impressively little masterpieces like this, and each one is as perfect as the one before.

However, if you're not into floral art, you've probably never heard the name Fantin-Latour before. The exception might be if you're a fan of the Impressionists. Why? Henri was certainly no Impressionist except for perhaps sharing some rather imaginative compositional elements with them. Well, for one thing, he hung out with them at the Cafe Guerbois. Along with Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, CÚzanne, and others, he was what you might call a "regular" in the place. And coming from a very academic background, painting in a most traditional manner, he no doubt represented a rather conservative point of view in their legendary debates as they raged long into the night. (Degas once complained they drank and argued art so late each night they couldn't get up to paint the next morning.) But drinking and arguing aside, there was much more to Henri Fantin-Latour's association with the Impressionists than mere proximity. He also painted them.

Besides being into flowers and tea sets, Fantin-Latour was a pretty mean portrait painter as well. In fact, except for a few faded photos, we have him to thank for our knowing what many of these men actually looked like. Manet, in fact, he painted three different times; first in 1864 in his Homage to Delacroix, again in 1867 in a standing portrait which actually made it into the Salon that year. (Imagine having your work rejected by the salon but having your portrait, painted by another artist, accepted.) And finally, perhaps Fantin-Latour's most famous work, a painting of Manet at work in his studio entitled Studio of Battignolles (1870). The painting depicts Manet, brush in hand, seated before his easel, while in the background, watching in admiration, is the whole Cafe Guerbois crowd. It's strange the tricks art history plays on it's unsuspected artists. Here we have a man who spent nearly his entire life painting the delicate, intricate beauty of his beloved flowers in their finest detail; only to be most remembered for a somewhat fawning group portrait of a bunch of stogey old men dressed in their Sunday best, watching one of their own paint a picture. If it's any consolation, he's since had a lovely pink rose named in his memory.

contributed by Lane, Jim

14 February 2000

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