This Spring, Freeman’s will offer “Narcisses Simples et Doubles dans un Verre Long," by artist Henri Fantin-Latour (estimate $100,000-150,000) as part of the Collection of Dorrance “Dodo” Hamilton. Although Henri Fantin-Latour initially sought academic fame through portraiture, it was his still lifes that made him truly renowned during his painting career, as they demonstrated his remarkable capacity to bring life and harmony to simple everyday objects like flowers.
Fantin-Latour rapidly realized there was a greater interest for his flower paintings in Great Britain than in France. He first travelled to London in 1859 at the suggestion of fellow artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), whom he met while copying Old Masters at the Louvre the year before, and who purchased several of his early still lifes. Fantin returned to London many times after, enjoying a market that proved extremely lucrative and provided him with a reliable income. While on his second trip to London in 1862, Fantin was introduced to Edwin Edwards, an important lawyer and a keen collector who subsequently became his dear friend and agent. Under his patronage, timid-natured Fantin was free to paint as he wished, surrounded with silent flowers, in lieu of a noisy Parisian crowd, which he avoided his entire life. "I am able to live quietly... doing what I please, thanks to Edwards," he wrote to his friend Otto Scholderer in 1871, the same year the present work, "Narcisses Simples et Doubles dans un Verre Long," was completed.
Art history has not always been completely fair towards Fantin-Latour's flower paintings. Still lifes were not considered the spearhead of the Avant-Garde movement when Fantin-Latour started to dabble in the genre. Even when he tried to promote his still lifes in France, he faced severe criticism by the French Académie and Salon officials on still life painting, which they ranked at the bottom of the hierarchy of artist's subjects. To contemporary critics, Fantin's paintings were too repetitive and lacked originality. They were simply a response to the market's high demand and had more in common with the works of everyday artists Alexandre Desgoffe (1805-1882) or Philippe Rousseau (1816-1887), than those of future celebrities such as Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) or Paul Sérusier (1864-1927). "The problem with [Fantin-Latour's] still life paintings isn't that we don't care for them," Laurent Salomé explains, in Fantin-Latour: À Fleur de Peau, an exhibition catalogue from 2016, "we simply do not really know what to say about them." He continues: "We are in the presence of an immense and enigmatic work, as mute as the flowers the artist produces, which, like them, seems to conceal some important secrets about existence." This statement applies particularly well to the present work.
"Narcisses Simples et Doubles dans un Verre Long" was painted at a point during Fantin-Latour's career when he struggled to make each work fresh and new, having painted still lifes for over ten years. His biggest fear, voiced to both Edwards and his wife in numerous letters, was that he would ultimately become a "fabricator" of still lifes, and "because of this fear [he] promised [himself] to always paint them with painstaking care" (letter to Edwin Edwards, dated March 2, 1865). Most likely created in England, the present work shows the extent to which Fantin's still lifes embrace a pure aesthetic, prepared with subtle color contrasts, namely creamy whites and dark blacks. The flowers, carefully arranged in a simple yet elegant vase, are set against a characteristically muted background, which has been rapidly painted, so as to not "distract the attention to be paid to the flowers" (Fantin himself, quoted in Fantin-Latour, exhibition catalogue dated 1983). Still and calm, Fantin-Latour's "Narcisses" seem isolated from the world. They have an emotional quality, which Jacques-Émile Blanche (1861-1942) elucidated best when he said: "Fantin studied each flower, each petal, its grain, its tissue, as if it were a human face."
Fantin developed an extraordinary eye for detail as a portraitist, which he uses here to depict each flower with remarkable singularity, treating each as an independent sitter. He provides this bouquet of flowers with the dignity, mystery, and even sensuality of a portrait. One can compare the branches of the narcisses to rebellious sprigs of hair. The vase is the equivalent of a dress; rigid, sophisticated and yet transparent, revealing the elegant stems of the flower. By depicting narcissus, Fantin also plays with the myth associated with the flower itself. Historically speaking, the flower owes its name to the young hunter Narcissus, who tragically drowned in the pool where he contemplated his own reflection. Traditionally associated with narcissism and conceit, here the flowers appear free from this negative symbolism. Instead, Fantin arranges them as a modest bouquet, enriching them with a personal touch that is reminiscent of his delicate, yet powerful, personality. Just like the odorant narcissus, which only grows in wooded and shady areas, the artist shyly reveals a part of himself before withdrawing into the shadows, leaving us with a painting where raw passion lies on the surface.
This painting exemplifies a whole new philosophy, a certain lifestyle and, to some extent, a social model the artist sets for himself and his generation. Fantin was the incarnation of the "New Artist" who only considered his work in the face of history. To that extent, the painting proves to reference the art of the past more intensely than the radical concepts put forth by artists of his generation. Here, Fantin clearly looks to the work of 18th Century French still life Master Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) to bring to canvas the vision of peaceful, bourgeois simplicity. The vase is refined without being too precious. The bouquet itself is bright but not too complex. By keeping his composition simple, Fantin ultimately abandons the traditional decorative rhetoric that would complicate his work.
Although his works appear beautifully simple, Fantin devoted copious amounts of time determining the best composition for each one. Despite his close friendship with many Impressionists, the artist did not adopt their method of plein air painting. Rather than painting his floral pictures outside surrounded by nature, Fantin-Latour cut his flowers from the garden and went inside to arrange and paint them. There, he could methodically control the light and the atmosphere of his paintings. Like he said to his friend Otto Scholderer in 1872:
"I have many things to tell you still, but it is getting late and one needs to get up early tomorrow to finish a bouquet that has already withered. My life is among flowers."