Saturday, January 29, 2011

Frederick Francis Foottet: A Forgotten Master

The English Impressionist/Symbolist Frederick Francis Foottet was born in Yorkshire in 1850. Foottet made his debut at the Royal Academy in 1873, and continued to exhibit up to the 1930s. As a printmaker, Foottet made etchings from 1890, and colour lithographs from 1900. F. F. Foottet's first painting accepted by the Royal Academy was entitled December. Ruskin praised it, but added, "Yes, the artist is painting trees, but is he sure that he can draw a leaf?" Foottet then spent several months of intensive study of fruit and leaves under Ruskin's personal instruction. After this, Foottet left London to settle in Derby.

Frederick Francis Foottet, Waterfall by moonlight
Lithograph, 1900

This evocative colour lithograph by Foottet was published by The Studio, whose correspondent praised Foottet's "subtle and imaginative landscape work in lithography". Exposure to the work of the Impressionists and Symbolists had freed Foottet from the constrictions of Ruskin's moral earnestness, and under its influence he developed his mature style, of which the Studio correspondent wrote, "It has been said that Mr. Foottet is among the few living artists whose landscapes are symbolistic and charged with human emotion. True enough, and if this mystical and poetic way of treating Nature is appreciated far oftener in prose than in paint, it is none the less very noteworthy to all who take serious interest in the productions of true artists." Frederick Francis Foottet died in 1935. His art still awaits a modern re-evaluation.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

With the grain: the woodcuts of René Quillivic

The sculptor and wood engraver René Quillivic (1879-1969) was born into a humble family in the village of Plouhinec in the department of Finistère in Brittany. He attended the night classes at the École Boulle in Paris, studying sculpture under Marius Jean Antonin Mercié. Although he exhibited at various Paris Salons - des Artistes Français, de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, des Indépendants, d'Automne - the art of René Quillivic remained rooted in his native Brittany. He left his heart-rending mark on its landscape in the form of many war memorials to the fallen of the First World War. Many of these are in the Pays Bigouden, the area of Finistère made famous by Pêr-Jakez Helias in his marvellous book The Horse of Pride.

René Quillivic, Marine bretonne
Woodcut, 1922

Besides his sculptures, René Quillivic was noted for his woodcuts. He exhibited his prints in both Paris and London, and was a member of the Société de la Gravure sur Bois Originale. As a sculptor, Quillivic preferred the robustness of the woodcut (cut on the plank of the wood, with the grain) to the delicacy of the wood engraving (cut on the end grain).

René Quillivic, La vague
Woodcut, 1929

No Breton artist can escape the sea, and René Quillivic is no exception. All three of my Quillivic woodcuts are marine subjects. They show a certain Art Deco elegance, and also the lingering influence of Japonisme, especially in the beautifully rhythmical depiction of a tumultuous sea in La vague (The wave).

René Quillivic, Oceano Nox
Woodcut, 1929

Perhaps the most remarkable of the three is the one entitled Oceano Nox, after a poem by Victor Hugo. Is the fisherman in the image drowning, or simply entering a new life in the undersea world? In his essay "René Quillivic, graveur Breton" in the revue Byblis in 1929, Charles Chassé links this print to a second poem by Tristan Corbière, who writes of the death of sailors that
                              ... ils sont mort dans leur bottes
Leur boujaron au coeur, tout vifs dans leur capotes.
They die with their boots on, their ration of rum in their hearts, 
all alive in their sou'westers.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Etchings by and after Rembrandt van Rijn

The story of etching in France could be told simply in terms of French etchers' passionate engagement with the work of Rembrandt - as Alison McQueen has effectively done in her brilliant book The Rise of the Cult of Rembrandt: Re-inventing an Old Master in Nineteenth-Century France, which is available in full here. Rembrandt was not just the etchers' guru, as I described Maxime Lalanne in a recent post, but the etchers' god. Those who taught etching to hundreds, such as Charles Waltner or Alphonse Legros, held Rembrandt up as the most brilliant etcher of all time, and their students - such as Legros's star pupil William Strang - learned to gauge their own success or failure by comparison with the work of the Dutch master. Even Impressionist etchers such as Norbert Goeneutte and Henri Guérard started by copying Rembrandts. The result is that, besides the two original Rembrandt etchings that will be the main focus of this post, I have many etchings after Rembrandt by a roll-call of nineteenth century printmakers, all eager to test themselves against the skill of the master. In fact I have one even earlier, by Antoine de Marcenay de Ghuy, signed and dated in the plate 6 October 1755. 10 of de Marcenay's total of 71 prints were studies after Rembrandt.

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait
Etching by Antoine de Marcenay de Ghuy, 1755

Rembrandt, Autoportrait (tenant un bâton dans la main gauche)
Etching by Pauline Wissant, 1871

Rembrandt, Portrait de l'artiste
Etching by Charles Waltner, 1906

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) scarcely needs any more words added to his fame by me. But there are some interesting things to say about his etchings (and I'll just use the word etching to describe them, even though many also show touches of the drypoint needle and the engraver's burin). Rembrandt made about 300 etchings, issuing them in various states with sometimes very small modifications; he had already discovered the kind of collector-based marketing that enables music companies to sell us the same music over and over again by adding an extra track or a remix. The first Rembrandt etchings were pulled by Rembrandt himself, and even if not all the lifetime impressions were hand-printed by Rembrandt, it is obvious that a lifetime proof will be of far greater value than any posthumous one.

Rembrandt, Saskia van Ulenburg
Etching by William Unger, 1876

Rembrandt, Un Gueux
Etching by Henri Guérard, 1876

Rembrandt, Portrait de Rembrandt, d'après lui-même
Etching by A. Protche, 1974

With posthumous impressions, however, the water gets murkier. It's not necessarily so that the earliest posthumous prints from Rembrandt copper plates are the best, nor that what is printed is entirely Rembrandt's. Copper is a very soft metal, which is what makes it ideal for etching and drypoint, but this softness also means that copper plates wear away with alarming speed. At various times engravers, often highly skilled, have tried to "improve" degraded Rembrandt plates, taking the image ever further from the touch of Rembrandt's own hand. The mid-nineteenth century put a stop to that, with the invention of the process known as steel facing, whereby a copper plate is given a thin coating of steel by electrotyping. This steel face does not damage the plate, and can be removed from it. It prevents any further wear, though obviously it cannot repair wear already received, nor remove the traces of previous restorers.

Rembrandt, Paysage
Etching by Jules Jacquemart, 1877

Rembrandt, Landschaft mit ruinen
Etching by William Unger, 1886

Rembrandt, Winterlandschaft
Etching by William Unger, 1886

A large collection of Rembrandt copper plates, deriving from the estate of Rembrandt's close friend, the Amsterdam print dealer Clément de Jonghe, has survived to this day. After passing through various hands, it was sold at auction in London in 1993, and the plates dispersed. Eight of these have since been reprinted, with some controversy you can easily discover for yourself via Google, as the Millennium Edition. I don't have any of these controversial Rembrandt re-strikes, but I do have two beautiful Rembrandt etchings printed from other plates in the same hoard in 1929. At that date the plates belonged to M. Alvin-Beaumont, who had bought them in 1906. He had the plates rigorously assessed and then vehemently championed by the etcher and art historian Charles Coppier, and the publication of small editions of three of them in 1929 was accompanied by a long and argumentative essay by Coppier, mainly concerned with rubbishing the expertise of every previous authority on Rembrandt's etchings. This extreme cross-fighting in the field of Rembrandt studies has continued unabated to the present day. The plates were published in an edition of 605 copies on very high-quality laid paper. There is a watermark (filigrane) in the paper, but unfortunately I don't recognize it. The publisher was the art revue Byblis: Miroir des arts du livre et de l'estampe. This was published in two editions: 105 deluxe copies, with the text on Arches, and 500 ordinary copies, with the text on vélin pur fil Lafuma. The deluxe copies had extra prints, many prints in two different states, and many prints hand-signed by the artists. As mine is one of the ordinary ones, it only has two Rembrandt prints, lacking Les Pélerins d'Emmaüs of 1654. The printer Jacquemin, Paris. Coppier writes of the plates and the proofs: "Ces trois cuivres, on le voit, sont à peu près intacts, et donnent encore des épreuves magnifiques." These three plates, as can be seen, are almost pristine, and still yield magnificent impressions.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son
Original etching, 1636
Printed from the original copper plate in 1929
Refs: Bartsch 91, Hind 147

The earlier of my Rembrandt etchings is Le retour de l'enfant prodigue (The Return of the Prodigal Son), etched in 1636. After the 1993 sale, the original copper plate for this was bought by the Rembrandthuis. The Biblical scene is rendered with great pathos and emotion. There's a good essay on this etching here, so I won't go on about it!

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House
Original etching, 1648
Printed from the original copper plate in 1929
Refs: Bartsch 176, Hind 233

My second Rembrandt etching is Les mendiants à la porte d'une maison (Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House) from 1648. This is a very interesting scene in which Rembrandt explores his enduring fascinating with beggars and outcasts; perhaps he felt that at any moment he might become one. The website of the Rijksmuseum notes that the father of this beggar family is probably blind, and that he is carrying a hurdy-gurdy, "the typical instrument of the itinerant musician".

Rembrandt, Portrait d'homme
Etching by Charles Courtry, 1881

Rembrandt, Tête de vieillard
Etching by Jules Jacquemart, 1877

Rembrandt, Die Judenbraut (The Jewish Bride)
Etching by Willem Steelink, 1891

Rembrandt's complete etchings can be explored here. One word of warning before I go. In the nineteenth century the firm of Amand-Durand made excellent heliogravure facsimiles of Rembrandt etchings. These are photo-engravings (possibly with some fine detailing by drypoint) rather than hand-made prints. So convincing are they that they are often offered for sale as original etchings after Rembrandt. Decorative and desirable they may be, but etchings they are not.

Rembrandt, Portrait of His Wife
Etching by N. S. Mossolow, 1892

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Process, materials, and aesthetics: woodblocks by Otto Eckmann

Otto Eckmann was one of the most important figures in the Judgendstil (German Art Nouveau) art movement. Born in Hamburg in 1865, Otto Eckmann studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Hamburg, and then in Nuremberg, before entering the Munich Academy of Fine Art in 1885. In the end it was to be the arts and crafts element of his training that predominated. After initial success as a painter in the Symbolist style, in 1894 Otto Eckmann renounced oil painting and auctioned off his canvases. From this point he concentrated on graphics (particularly woodcuts) and on the design of tapestries, stained glass, furniture, fabrics, and ceramics. Otto Eckmann was also a pioneering typographer and type designer, and his Jugendstil typefaces Eckmann and Fette Eckmann are still in use today. Eckmann's type design was influenced by Japanese script, just as his woodcuts show the strong influence of Japanese art. Otto Eckmann was a major contributor to the two most important Art Nouveau revues published in Germany, Pan and Jugend. He died in 1902.

Otto Eckmann, Schwertlilien
Colour woodcut, 1895

In many ways, the career of Otto Eckmann can be seen as pivotal in the democratization of art. This is true both in the way he blurred the distinction between fine and decorative arts, and in the way he renounced oil painting, which was geared to an art market of the rich and powerful, for popular and commercial art forms that reached as wide an audience as possible.

Otto Eckmann, Nachtreiher
Colour woodcut, 1896

The extent to which craft decisions influenced artistic outcomes in his work can be seen in my two colour woodblock prints. Both were published by Pan, and both were printed by Gieseke und Devrient in Leipzig. Although both are intended to be independent graphic images, I could easily imagine either of them being put to commercial use: Schwertlilien as a repeat image on a textile, for instance, or Nachtreiher as a motif on ceramics. And in each case decisions about processes and materials have decisively influenced the aesthetics of the final print. Schwertlilien (Irises), with its sharp outlines and bold contrasts between the black and yellow of the flowers, the grey of their leaves, and the uninked background, has been printed on cream wove paper. The creaminess softens the image and prevents it from being stark and challenging, while the robust thickness and open texture of the paper give an organic solidity to the print. By contrast, the ethereal Nachtreiher (Night herons), is printed on delicate, wafer-thin china paper, which is then floated onto a wove backing sheet. The resulting print has a dreamlike quality, as if the herons are conferring on some matter of mystical importance. This is quite at odds with the immediate physicality of the irises, which feel as if you could reach out and pluck them from the page.