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Roses and Lilies, 1888

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Artist Fantin-Latour, Henri Ignace Jean Théodore

In July 1888 Fantin-Latour informed  his old friend the Frankfurt painter Otto Scholderer (1834-1902) that he was already “very tired” painting flowers even though the summer was still young. Writing from his wife’s family home in Buré, Normandy, where he had spent every summer from 1880 and where he painted most of his flower pieces, he expressed something of the boredom that many commentators have found in his paintings of this decade. The artist, after all, had been producing relatively small flower paintings almost exclusively for the English market since 1861. And the overwhelming and insistent manner of his dealer, Ruth Edwards, the widow and partner of Edwin Edwards (1823-1879), who had “discovered” Fantin-Latour, may certainly have contributed to his disenchantment with the genre by this time. Yet Roses and Lilies, dated 1888 and therefore probably painted at Buré in the summer of that year, bears no sign of such weariness, nor does it show the slightest falling off in artistic power. Thus it serves to question the charge of atrophy that is routinely applied to Fantin-Latour’s work of this period.

Against a subtle lavender-grey and warm brown background, four stems of lilies, set in a plain glass vase filled almost to the brim with water, cast their gentle shadows. A bowl of roses, cut at full bloom, is placed to the left. Each lily is observed in great detail, from the vivid orange stamen to the creamy whites of the curving petals, dusted with mauve and yellow. What Ruskin had called “the finely drawn leafage of the discriminated flower” could apply equally well to the roses—rich, full flowers, with the ridges of their petals carefully described—whose whites are set off by the most delicate strokes of blue. Unexpected highlights of blue also model the underside of the bowl that holds the roses, and create, in hatching lines, the outer edges of the vertical glass vase and the surface of the water inside.

Although we do not know the circumstances in which Roses and Lilies was painted, a detailed account of the artist at work the following summer serves to illuminate his technique and working method. He used commercially prepared canvases known as toile absorbante, with a gesso like ground layer, whose luminosity was maintained through subsequent layers of paint. In Roses and Lilies he applied an imprimatura layer, here a thin, even glaze of brown, over the off white ground, making the weave texture very apparent: this now formed the base colour upon which his flowers would be painted. The imprimatura layer was itself enlivened by a thin stippled layer of lavender grey, handled in such a way as to produce a scumbled effect suggesting the randomness of the reflections cast by the blooms.

In the account of the artist at work in 1889, Fantin-Latour waited until the day after he had prepared his canvas before picking the  flowers he wanted to paint from his garden and choosing the appropriate vessels for them from among the vases supplied by Mrs. Edwards. He also placed the flowers against a piece of cardboard painted the same colour as the background of his canvas, a procedure he may well have followed in executing Roses and Lilies.  Only after all this would he concentrate on painting the flowers themselves, which he did quickly and confidently, using relatively small strokes of impasto. A particularly attractive feature of Roses and Lilies is Fantin Latour’s use of the tip of the handle of his paintbrush, or a similar instrument, to incise and manipulate the wet paint. This device is employed effectively to suggest the edges of the petals of the central rose and the ribs of the lilies above. Delicate incisions, which allow the background tone to push through the white , can be discerned on almost every lily: Fantin-Latour’s line cuts cleanly through the  thinly impasted surface and is sufficiently varied and discrete to avoid degenerating into a technical cliché. He followed a similar procedure in painting the tabletop and glass vase, where the original layer of blue paint has been almost completely removed by the scraping action of the brush handle, leaving the most delicate of scribbles to define the curved surfaces of the vase and the reflections within.

Such virtuosity, as well as the easy elegance of his compositions and their spare, unusual harmonies, distinguished Fantin-Latour’s work from the genre painting of his English contemporaries, which the French critic Ernest Chesneau characterized as “one of microscopic analysis driven to the utmost extreme” and which provides the proper context for an appraisal of Fantin-Latour’s flower painting. It should always be remembered that Fantin-Latour’s still lifes were made for a Victorian public—despite Durand-Ruel’s numerous purchases in 1872 this aspect of his oeuvre found little favour in France — and that from his earliest visit to London he had been intrigued by the Pre-Raphaelites.

By the late 1870s the lily had become vulgarized as Oscar Wilde’s flower, and the pre-eminent symbol of the Aesthetic movement in England—a resonance strongly felt in the striking White Lilies, painted in 1877, and still perceptible in the more subdued Roses and Lilies. Furthermore, although his friendship with Whistler was long at an end by the 1880s, Fantin-Latour aspired in Roses and Lilies to the lofty realm that Whistler claimed for the artist in his celebrated “Ten O'Clock Lecture,” delivered in London in February 1885. Whistler, another proponent of Artfor-Arts Sake, argued that the artist is privy to the mysteries of nature in recording her creations: “He looks at her flower, not with the enlarging lens, that he may gather facts for the botanist, but with the light of the one who sees in her choice selection of brilliant tones and delicate tints, suggestions of future harmonies." For Fantin-Latour, as for Whistler, nature is always “dainty and lovable”: and it was through his determined rejection of a slavish and prosaic verism that he was able to aspire to the poetry of “hushed silence” that Paul Claudel discovered in his best flower paintings.



Institution The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 59.7 x 45.7 cm













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