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White Roses, 1875
York Museums Trust

A whiter shade
of pale

Review by Corinna Lotz

An imaginative display at York Art Gallery celebrates summer in image and reality. Three flower pieces by Henri Fantin-Latour from the gallery’s own collection are the starting point for a concentrated look at the painter, the first such display in Britain for some 20 years. York’s show celebrates the artist’s ability to capture the transient beauty of flowers by setting contemporary arrangements of fresh and artificial blooms near the canvases.

The artist was highly sought-after by the Victorians but fell out of fashion and is today perhaps the least known of the Impressionists. While Renoir, Monet, Cézanne and Van Gogh liked to paint bouquets in bright sunlight, Fantin would focus on the uniqueness of each variety.  One of his friends and a fellow painter, Jacques Emile Blanche, wrote that he “studied each flower, each petal, its grain, its tissue, as if it were a human face”.

Madame Leon Maitre, 1884
Leeds Museums and Galleries

His still-lives are in a more “realist” style, closer to Courbet, with the unique properties of a bunch of roses, lilies or delphinium emerging out of an indistinct neutral background. Curator Caroline Worthington explains that Fantin-Latour was famous for his magisterial touch in tones of white.

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has lent White Lilies, a small canvas by the artist, which it originally purchased as an example to be used in its art school. “Normally,” Caroline says, “it hangs in the V&A’s board room, but now it can be viewed close to York’s beloved White Roses, painted eight years earlier, to reveal his brilliant touch.”

In 1876, aged 40, Fantin-Latour married fellow painter Victoria Dubourg, whose wealthy family had a big estate in Normandy. The artist would cut his flowers early in the morning and then let them sit until the heads were about to drop and go over. He would then pick up his brush and capture that fleeting moment. Fantin-Latour’s arrangements of blooms have a poignant quality. Their fragile beauty, like the faces of his sitters, emerges into light from the surrounding darkness.

Pink & Yellow Roses, mid 1880s
York Museums Trust

The flowers just beginning to bend under their own weight lend a contemplative, dark and philosophical feeling, reminiscent of the early still lives or Vanitas paintings made by Spanish monks like Cotán and Zubarán, working in the 17th century. They also set fruit, vegetables and flowers against black backgrounds, inviting the viewer to think about mortality.

The words of a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne are emblazoned on the wall and provide an added dimension. It points to the contrast of light and dark in the flowers and the vases holding the sprays, with their abstract patterns:

Deep flowers, with lustre and darkness fraught
From glass that gleams as the chill still seas
Lean and lend for a heart distraught
Hearts ease.

Apart from giving us a fresh look at the artist himself, we can also see the cross-fertilisation between him and English painters such as Walter Greaves and George Frederick Watts from the gallery’s permanent collection. Fantin-Latour admired Watts, who shared his sense of dreamy fantasy and desire to “suggest great thoughts”.

Painting the Summer: Henri Fantin-Latour, is at the York Art Gallery until September 23. Admission free.

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