The Prints of Félix Buhot: Impressions of City and Sea
Introduction: Impressions of City and Sea
The etchings of Félix-Hilaire Buhot are among the most original and enchanting prints made in France during the late nineteenth century. Born in 1847 in the small town of Valognes in Normandy, Buhot was orphaned at the age of seven. He nurtured his early love for art by poring over rare illustrated books and manuscripts in his hometown’s library. In 1865 he moved to Paris, where he studied painting and drawing at the École des Beaux-Arts. He learned to etch in about 1873 and quickly established himself as a successful printmaker. Buhot lived and worked most of his life in Paris, with frequent visits back to northern France and extended trips to England. He suffered from prolonged bouts of depression, which deepened over time. By 1892 he had ceased making prints, and six years later he died at the age of fifty-one.
Buhot’s prints were made at a time of renewed interest in original printmaking (especially etching), which was rapidly becoming more popular than reproductive engraving. His etchings were singled out for praise as early as 1874 by the preeminent critic Philippe Burty, who admired the artist’s belles épreuves (beautiful proofs)— a term Burty promoted to denote rare, superbly inked impressions printed by the artist himself. By the 1880s Buhot had become one of the best-known and most collected printmakers of his day. Buhot’s renown extended well beyond his own country, and he also enjoyed critical acclaim and strong support for his prints in the United states.
In 1888 the New York print dealer Frederick Keppel (1845-1912) gave Buhot his first one-man exhibition, which was quite successful. In addition to Keppel, Buhot became friends with two prominent late nineteenth-century American collectors who amassed large numbers of the artist’s prints: Samuel P. Avery (1822-1904) of New York collected over 300 prints and George A. Lucas (1824-1909) of Baltimore owned some 200 prints. Beginning in 1911, another large collection was formed by Albert H. Wiggin (1868-1951) of Boston, who bought over 150 impressions. Today, these collections can be found in, respectively, the New York Public Library, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Boston Public Library.
Today, the National Gallery of Art’s collection of more than one hundred prints and drawings by Buhot is unsurpassed in the fine quality and variety of the artist’s most iconic etchings. The museum’s first Buhot prints were donated in 1943 by Lessing J. Rosenwald, an early founder of the Gallery’s print department. Further gifts were made by a variety of donors, and in the 1990s important donations were made by Helena Gunnarsson, who in acquiring outstanding impressions of important subjects has become one of the foremost collectors of the artist’s prints. Finally, the collectors Jacob and Ruth Kainen have also assembled a group of noteworthy and rare prints by Buhot, which either have been given or promised to the Gallery. This exhibition of more than sixty prints and several drawings is selected from these private collections as well as from that of the National Gallery of Art.
French, 1847 - 1898
Among the most original prints made in France during the last quarter of the nineteenth century are those by Félix Buhot. Born in 1847 in the small Normandy town of Valognes, Buhot moved to Paris in 1865, where a year later he enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts, studying painting and drawing under various artists. Buhot first learned to etch in about 1873, producing his first etching later that year and quickly establishing himself as a successful printmaker. The young artist made his living by decorating fans and illustrating lithographic sheet music. Buhot lived and worked most of his life in Paris, with frequent visits back to northern France and extended trips to England where he met his wife, Henrietta Johnston, whom he married in 1881. By 1892 Buhot had ceased making prints, and in 1898, after suffering prolonged bouts of deep depression, he died at the age of fifty-one.
Along with Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, Félix Buhot numbers among the most experimental printmakers of his day. In exploring the unique aspects of etching, he developed an approach to printmaking that was very painterly; in fact, he called his prints “paintings on copper.” A true printmaker’s printmaker, Buhot delighted in all the technical variables and regularly combined multiple processes to produce a single print: he achieved even greater tonal variation by employing the more traditional techniques of etching, drypoint, and aquatint along with several less familiar methods. Unlike many contemporary printmakers who disliked photography, Buhot heartily embraced the medium and used it as a creative aid. He also used different inks and papers for varied effects. His most original contribution to the history of printmaking is an illustrative device he termed marges symphoniques (symphonic margins): by amplifying the main subject, such illustrations became an integral part of the print.
In his many prints of city views and seascapes, Buhot was intent on creating a specific atmosphere, especially the effects of weather, particularly rain, snow, mist, and fog. He turned to his immediate neighborhood in and around the boulevard de Clichy in Montmartre, Paris, for inspiration for his prints of everyday city life. Buhot delighted in portraying the varied street life of the vibrant capital city not only in different seasons (Winter in Paris, 1879) but also in moments of public display, from a festive holiday celebration (National Holiday on the Boulevard de Clichy, 1878) to a somber death observance (Funeral Procession on the Boulevard de Clichy, 1887). His city views also include London scenes (Westminster Palace and Westminster Bridge, both of 1884). And Buhot’s love for the sea is evident in the many prints exploring its ever-changing atmospheric conditions and moods. Buhot’s boat trips to England inspired two of his most characteristic prints, A Pier in England and Landing in England, both from 1879.
With his experimental printmaking techniques, Buhot became one of the best-known, admired, and collected printmakers of his day. He achieved success for his prints at the annual Salons between 1875 and 1886, and a number of his works were published in leading periodicals and books. He also found critical acclaim and support for his prints in the United States, especially after his first one-man exhibition in 1888.
Buhot’s Experimental Techniques
Along with Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, Félix Buhot numbers among the most experimental printmakers of the last half of the nineteenth century. His approach to printmaking was very painterly, and indeed he called his prints “paintings on copper.” A true printmaker’s printmaker, Buhot delighted in all the technical variables and regularly combined multiple processes to produce a single print. He employed traditional techniques of etching, drypoint, and aquatint along with modern methods such as photomechanical reproduction.
Buhot altered his plates many times before he was satisfied with an image. In the first states, he usually sketched in the general design, filling in details and elaborating upon tonal passages in subsequent reworkings. The time of day or specific weather condition might even change in a later state. He inked his plates by using the customary roller and selectively applying the ink with a rag, but he also experimented with mixing turpentine into the ink (à l’essence). Buhot employed a wide variety of paper types, which he sometimes modified in color and appearance by soaking them in tea, coffee, or turpentine before printing. For Buhot, each impression was a valid expression in its own right. His finest prints carry his monogrammed owl stamp, which he often substituted for his pencil signature.
Buhot’s most original contribution to the history of printmaking is a device he termed marges symphoniques (symphonic margins). Inspired by the marginal decorations of medieval manuscripts and eighteenth-century French book illustrations, Buhot transformed the remarque, an incidental, witty sketch that earlier artists sometimes added just outside the image, into an integral element that amplifies the main subject of the print. Buhot developed two types of margins, etching the first on the same plate as the central subject and printing the second, called a “false margin,” from a separate plate.
Each time the copperplate is reworked it is called a new state, and every print pulled from a plate is referred to as an impression. In the first state, Buhot usually sketched in an image, which he elaborated upon in later states. He might also burnish, or scrape away, certain details. Within a single state, Buhot varied impressions by altering the ink application and papers. The states of Buhot’s prints are regularly identified. State iv/vii means that the print is taken from the fourth state out of seven states.
Landing in England
Buhot’s prints of the sea express the power and grandeur of nature as he focuses on ever-changing atmospheric effects, including wind, rain, and storm-filled skies.
This print is based on sketches Buhot made during his second trip to England when he landed at Ramsgate, north of Dover, on September 9, 1879.
The following three impressions reveal how Buhot worked through various stages of the print and experimented with different effects.
Landing in England
This is a rare impression of an early state. Buhot has already begun to think of the image without the margins, as indicated by the graphite mark at left. Much of the aquatinted areas was done with a spirit ground, a type of etching in which the resin is dissolved in alcohol to give the artist greater control. This can be seen most clearly in the tonal areas of the sky.
Landing in England
Buhot's additions to this state include the aquatinted areas in the margin illustrations at left.
Buhot's inscription on the print calls it the fleur du planche (flower of the plate). Writing in a letter to Gustave Bourcard, an early cataloguer of the artist’s prints, Buhot considered this impression of the fourth state the best he ever made: “[It] is the proof that I had chosen as being the most beautiful, the most velvety, the richest in tone....If this amateur is not a true lover of original Etching and of the Belle Epreuve [beautiful proof], you must never pass this one on to him, no matter what the price. Because, rightly or wrongly, I consider this State of the plate as the most characteristic piece, the best that I ever made; it is in any case the most robust, the most painterly Etching.”
Landing in England
In this state, Buhot removed the margin illustrations by cutting them off of the plate. He also has altered the condition of the sky—it is not as dark and dramatic as in the preceding two prints. For this impression, Buhot used a sheet of paper made in the eighteenth century. The artist sometimes took fly-leaves from old books and blank pages from ledgers, as he liked the texture and appearance of these papers. Another impression of this state was printed on a coarse brown paper, perhaps a wrapping paper Buhot was known to have used. The texture and color of this paper contributes to the dark atmosphere of the subject.
A Pier in England
This print, also based on sketches made during Buhot’s 1879 trip to England, reverses the composition of The Landing. These three states illustrate how Buhot transformed a single image through a variety of techniques.
A Pier in England
The first state, mostly in drypoint, lays in the basic design. Particularly strong areas of drypoint burr include the dog in the foreground and the people at the left. When inking the plate, Buhot left a thin film of ink on the plate corresponding to the sky but fully wiped the lower half of the plate to create an illusion of light reflecting off a wet surface. This impression was printed on a nicely textured eighteenth-century paper.
A Pier in England
In this state, Buhot added the seagulls in a stormy sky in which aquatint was heavily employed to create the foreboding clouds. Buhot also used several other techniques to enrich the atmospheric tone. To create the shadows on the boards of the pier, Buhot used a roulette—a tool which when applied to the plate makes a regular system of closely spaced incised dots. Other very finely grained tonal areas of the sky and pier were done by pressing sandpaper into the hard wax ground. The particles of sand pierce the ground, leaving pits where the acid can bite the plate.
A Pier in England
In this late state, Buhot transformed the image once again by removing the clouds and replacing them with fine, closely spaced, sweeping etched lines to suggest a heavy wind and rain.
The subject for this print was taken from Buhot’s many ferry crossings between France and England, a common occurrence since his marriage to an English woman. The print, made in France in 1885, was executed from sketches Buhot made earlier in England in 1879.
Strong drypoint burr can be found in the arms of the man playing the harp and in the woman and dog in the margin illustration at left. Such margins as this one show anecdotal scenes that are occurring simultaneously with the events of the main subject. Interestingly, the smoke of the ship billows over the main subject to the margin above, further emphasizing the important relationship between the two parts.
This state now carries the inscription “A Holyday Rain Storm and Music” which does not appear in the first state. For this impression, Buhot used a Japanese paper which has a more golden tone and a slightly slick surface that diffuses the ink and creates lines that are less crisp than those of state i.
Even though the main subject and the margin illustrations were executed on the same plate, Buhot printed them in two different colored inks. Buhot frequently inked his plates in this manner.