Henri Fantin-Latour was a French lithographer and painter, best known for his still-life flower paintings and portraits of prominent Parisian writers and artists. Fantin-Latour worked during a transitional and effervescent period of art history. Along with fellow painters Edouard Manet, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Alphonse Legros, Latour created a body of work that served as a bridge between Gustave Courbet's Realism and the Modern innovations of Impressionism. Even though he contributed to this Modernist group of artists, his work continued to be more indebted to Academic painting and Dutch Baroque still-life painting.
Henri Fantin-Latour's birth name was Ignace Henri Jean Théodore Fantin-Latour, and he was born in the city of Grenoble, France. His artistic education began when he was very young. Henri's father, Théodore Fantin-Latour, was a Rococo painter and bestowed his son's early education. Theodore lectured at the Ecole de Dessin, and his son began his artistic studies there at age 14 under Lecoq de Boisbaudran.
Henri Fantin-Latour joined the Parisian École des Beaux-Arts in 1854. Among his peers were artists such as Edgar Degas, Alphonse Legros, and Jean-Charles Cazin. He met his lifelong friend James Abbott McNeill Whistler at the École. During this period, he invested much time to research and copy paintings of the old masters at the Museé du Louvre. Fantin-Latour briefly attended Gustave Courbet's studio in 1861.
In 1863, a group of young painters started to meet and discuss their artistic ambitions. Having Edouard Manet as a base for the group, they frequently met around the district of Batignolles, where the master lived. The café Guerbois, one of their favorite places, was occupied continuously by the conversations of Manet, Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet, Frédéric Bazille, and Pierre Auguste Renoir, a now-celebrated and innovative group of French artists.
They were later joined by Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Edmond Maître, author Émile Zola and the photographer Nadar. Alphonse Legros, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Henri Fantin-Latour were also part of the circle. Along with their contemporaries, Frantin-Latour paved the way for the development of Modernist painting. The group of French painters, while still respecting tradition, became a step further from what Realist art had achieved. They weren't a movement that shared a collective artistic program, but they were all interested in creativity and the medium's formal side, going beyond Academic art's prerogatives.
Fantin-Latour portrayed many artists in meetings. One of his most known works with this theme is The Corner of the Table, which depicts a meeting of the Parnassus Poetry group, featuring the presence of Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. The picture is a testimony to the relationship between French avant-garde poetry and visual arts forming in Paris. The importance that the artist grants to the subject can be perceived by the dimensions, being a 160 x 225 cm canvas. His choice of scale, rather impressive for such a banal scene, received some negative criticism at the time, perceived as a contradiction.
With a more subtle and Realist sensibility than most of his peers, the French painter clearly demonstrated his admiration for the group's shared dialogue and vibrant creativity. It can be seen in the way he depicted relatively familiar scenes. There's a sense of respect, reverence, and documentation on Fantin-Latour's pictures of this specific time in Parisian paintings.
If the brushstrokes of Monet, Pissarro, and Edgar Degas opened the possibilities of pictorial language and a turn towards abstraction, Latour's work acted as a sober counterpoint, almost trying to match a photographic fidelity while still working with a subtle and captivating palette. The painter's pictures act like an invitation to the spectator to participate in the discussion, to emerge with that particular reality.
Another work that serves as testimony to the artistic meetings is An Atelier in the Batignolles. In the composition, the viewer sees Edouard Manet sitting, creating a portrait of the artist Zacharie Astruc, probably concluding the picture Portrait of Zacharie Astruc. The figure behind Manet is the German painter Otto Scholderer, who moved to the city to become a follower of Gustave Courbet.
On his right side is Auguste Renoir wearing a black hat and Émile Zola holding a drink, while Edmond Maître and Claude Monet face the viewer. At the same time, Bazille observes the older painter working. Again Fantin-Latour showed his respect for the subject through the scale, a 204 x 273.5 cm work. The figures are painted soberly and respectfully, and the artwork participated in the Salon of 1870.
Fantin-Latour's work sold very well in England thanks to Whistler, who brought attention to him there. After having his work rejected in an early submission to the Salon, he traveled with Whistler to London, where he established commercial bonds that lasted his whole life. His still-lifes sold well in England, but it didn't take long for him to be acknowledged in France as well. The painter participated in the Salon as early as 1861.
After the exciting years of the cafés and bohemian scenes, Fantin-Latour reached his artistic maturity. With the influence of Whistler's brother-in-law, the painter started to experiment with lithography. In this medium, his work took another turn, and he began to make mythological narratives and images inspired by opera.
Henri met Victoria Dubourg in one of his Louvre sketching visits in 1869. They fell in love and married in 1876. Victoria Dubourg was a Parisian painter who had her education in Fanny Chéron de Mortagne's atelier, a school focused on women artists. She participated in the Salon of 1869 and later in Royal Academy shows.
Following their marriage, the couple went to Normandy, where the climate allowed him to experience different flowers in bloom, expanding his scope of still-life subjects. There he made many studies and drawings of flowers. Fantin-Latour got along well with the Dubourg family, and they appear in many of his paintings, such as Charlotte Dubourg, Victoria Dubourg, and The Dubourg Family.
Even though he never stopped painting, the artist's late years were marked by the production of lithographic prints. These works served as illustrations for book scores and were influenced by mythological subjects. In 1876, one of these works shown at the Salon and well received. This period of his production is highly gestural, as seen in prints like Siegfried and the Rhine Daughters. Based on this series, an oil painting was made during the same year, now part of the Musée d'Orsay's collection.
In 1879, Fantin-Latour had his importance in the art world recognized as he received the distinguished Legion D'honneur medal. He continued to exhibit his lithographs frequently until the end of his life. The artistic couple settled above Henri's studio, where they would live until their passing, and they did not have any children. Henri Fantin-Latour died in August 1904, and his wife passed away 22 years later.
Fantin-Latour is one of the most distinguished French artists of the 19th century and has influenced many artists. Scholars argue that the artist influenced the Impressionists and artists such as Gustave Caillebotte. His flower paintings were highly commercial in British territory, and he became so well-known for portraying them that there is a rose named after him.
Even working for most of his career with restricted themes, his still-lifes continue to inspire. With his mythological lithographs, he would help set the foundation for the development of Symbolism, with Odilon Redon citing Fantin-Latour as one of his influences.