New York


Acquavella Galleries

In the catalog of the really delicious exhibition of flower paintings by Fantin-Latour at Acquavella, I came across an illuminating remark by Pierre Courthion: “In his own incomparable way, he (Fantin) has understood better than anyone the visual language of a bouquet of flowers, where each flower plays its own melody; the soft rustle of the white carnations and the red or multicolored ones which froth like the petticoats of a pretty girl . . .” To probe into these works, then, is perhaps to become a connoisseur of a genteel, Victorian eroticism. The latter would go far to explain the subdued energy and caressing textures of such painting, in which each petal becomes a succulent, delicately veined or striated presence, studied with almost an obsessive care to give it an illusory body.

As for the pictorial apparatus that materializes that body, it has a great deal more than period interest. Fantin took just enough acidity from Manet to temper the heartfelt penumbras of Chardin. That is, local colors are fuller and contours sharper than in even Courbet, while the light itself, although still studio, has a silvery crinkle which elegantly but authentically filters in the outdoors. A compromise then, between the more radical and conservative aspects of mid-nineteenth century French painting. Even the later bouquets of the eighties still retain it. But it is impossible not to see the personal touch, articulative to the last integer of pressure, as the arbiter of these works. Fantin models by means of a complicated stipple technique in the greyed or neutralized background, and a cursive webbing in the flowers. The majority of his still lifes are sequenced interior alternations of stained or “pebbled” grounds upon which a vegetable pulp is half deposited and half traced or picked out. Optically, this is an extremely sophisticated procedure, because it involves a high degree of finish which is nevertheless constrained to conceal itself. (As distinct from the Impressionist still life proper, which imaginatively defines a system of broken tones as a new kind of finish.) Sensitive to a whole language of differentiated tactility, or rather, of paint flesh, Fantin-Latour, at his best, could thrust his fussiness into relief by a few bold or velvety dabs. The longer one looks at these works, the more the oscillation between perception of the part, and its mergings with the whole, takes on a special charm.

––Max Kozloff