Henri Fantin-Latour: A Retrospective

RMN Grand Palais
Sep 29, 2016 10:24AM

The exhibition "Fantin-Latour: À Fleur De Peau" is organised by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux – Grand Palais and the Musée de Grenoble, in partnership with the Musée d’Orsay.

As the first retrospective of the work of Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) in Paris since the landmark exhibition on the artist at the Grand Palais in 1982, this exhibition will illuminate the most emblematic works from an artist who is principally known for his still lifes and group portraits, and will also reveal the important place in his oeuvre of the so-called "imaginative" paintings. 

Very attached from his youth to the faithful reproduction of reality, Fantin-Latour also explored, with great relish, a more poetic vein approaching that of the Symbolists. The exhibition offers a rich panorama that includes over one hundred and twenty works, paintings, lithographs, drawings, and other preparatory studies. 

Organised chronologically, the exhibition opens with the artist’s youthful endeavours, particularly the unsettling self-portraits that he painted between 1850 and 1860. Confined to his studio, Fantin-Latour took inspiration from his intimate circle: as captive models, he painted his two sisters reading and embroidering, while his skilfully executed still lifes from the 1860s already demonstrate the young artist’s exceptional powers of observation.

The seismic development that took place in the decade between 1864 and 1872, Fantin-Latour’s defining period, are on display in the second part of the exhibition. Imbued with great ambition, the young artist was working intensely, innovating with panache in the field of group portraiture. With Hommage à Delacroix, the first of his great group portraits, he took his place in the lineage of a certain type of modernity, alongside Delacroix and Manet. With Le Toast (1864-1865), Un atelier aux Batignolles (1870) and Coin de table (1872), he intensified his work to the point of a manifesto.

The third part of the exhibition presents the series of still lifes and portraits that the artist painted between 1873 and 1890. With the exception of portrait commissions, which gradually became scarcer in his work, the artist himself described the majority of these paintings as "studies from nature." The sumptuous portraits of flowers that he went on to paint by the dozen demonstrate a rare talent for the composition of bouquets as well as an exceptional virtuosity in capturing textures. His portraits, whether posed or more intimate, also illustrate an acute observational sense.

Nevertheless, the artist gradually loses interest in portraits and still lifes as we move into the fourth part of the exhibition. "I do what I please," with these words, written in a letter to Edwards in 1869, Fantin-Latour was describing his so-called "imaginative" works that took increasing prominence in his oeuvre over the years. 

Nourished by his passion for music, inspired by mythological subjects or odes to the beauty of the female body in the guise of chaste allegories, these works reveal a less well-known side to the artist.

Between the austerity of the family portraits, the richness of his still lifes and the fantasy of the imaginative paintings, a highly subtle portrait of the artist is revealed, whose complex personality is demonstrated by the extensive correspondence that he maintained with a number of friends and artists at the time. The exhibition also innovates by dedicating a room to Fantin-Latour’s creative process, based around L’Anniversaire, painted in 1876, presented alongside paintings, drawings, and lithographs that were reworked several times. This retrospective also provides an opportunity at last to put on public display a collection of unseen photographs, a true repertoire of forms for the artist.

Other than shining a light on the traditionally minor genre of still life, which the artist developed into genuine floral portraits, the exhibition wishes to paint a picture of the artist as engaged with the questions of his day, between a passion for the real and a desire for escape, who imposed himself, for all his discretion, as a pivotal figure in his century.


Laure Dalon: curator for the Rmn – Grand Palais, assistant to the Scientific Director

Xavier Rey: curator for the Musée d’Orsay

Guy Tosatto: director of the Musée de Grenoble

RMN Grand Palais