Wednesday, September 26, 2012

61. Alphonse Legros (1)

The artist Alphonse Legros, born in Dijon in 1837, came to England in 1863, after he studied art in Dijon and Paris. In 1864, he married Frances Rosetta Hodgson. A painter and etcher, Legros became a teacher of etching at the South Kensington School of Art. He was also Slade Professor at University College in London, and in 1881 he was naturalised, but although he would live in England for the rest of his life, he never came to speak the language properly.

Alphonse Legros at 62
Ricketts and Shannon considered him a friend and enjoyed his anecdotes and art gossip, however, he could also bore them to death when he came to stay for the day and kept them from working (*). Ricketts wrote twice about Legros' work, in 1897 and in 1922. The 1922 piece served as an introduction for A catalogue of paintings, drawings, etchings and lithographs by Professor Alphonse Legros (1837-1911) from the collection of Frank E. Bliss, Esq. The catalogue was issued by P. & D. Colnaghi & Co in May 1922, for an exhibition at the Grosvenor Galleries. 'Alphonse Legros', the introduction by Ricketts, was never reprinted:

Alphonse Legros

It is rare to find a collector who does not follow the fashions of the moment and whose hobby is to preserve and illustrate the several manifestations of a single outstanding personality. Unmoved by the lure of popularity the owner of this fine collection of works by Legros has brought together a few notable pictures, a superb series of drawings and a unique collection of etchings by this master who, unmoved by the popular successes of his time, counts in various fields of endeavour alike as an initiator and an example.

Legros was born in 1837. In his youth the battle between classicism and romanticism was over, and both movements had, in the main, become merged by compromise into the anecdotic art beloved by our grandparents. The outstanding painters of the forties - Millet, Daumier, Corot and even Chassèrieau - were systematically persecuted or ignored; it required the sensational advent of Courbet to force the attention of the public towards a more virile and spontaneous outlook upon painting, and to break with the admiration of outworn studio conventions in workmanship and subject matter. The modern French school owes its orientation, be it in realism or in impressionism, entirely to the example and the ethics of Courbet. To-day, when his opponents are forgotten, when it is time even to call a truce, it is difficult to realise that for years each advocate of naturalism, each effort to represent contemporary life, and each assertion of individualism in craftsmanship had to face the hostility of old vested interests and an equally tenacious development of the opposing schools. I have not the space at my disposal to describe the many diverging impulses in the French school of the nineteenth century - so rich in effort and experiment, nor has the time come to value the output and tendencies of this revolution of seventy years ago in which Legros was then a valiant recruit. Baudelaire, whose estimate of contemporary painting was prophetic in much that is to-day universally accepted, was early in praising the outstanding merit of the young artist's picture L'Angelus, executed in 1859, and his early sombre etchings. The more famous and ambitious early work, the Ex Voto, is now at Dijon, in this the influence of Courbet is very strong; it caused a sensation in the Salon of 1861, and Legros would often speak with humour and some emotion of Ingres' verdict of this picture when, in later years, he worshipped the Master of Montauban and had grown impatient with the painter of Ornans and his influence. "What a pity," said Ingres, "that this young man with his excellent aptitudes should be in such and evil course!"

The ill treatment of the younger men had grown scandalous at the Salons. To meet the public outcry an exhibition of the "Refusés" was ordered by the Emperor in 1863, this included pictures by Manet, Whistler, Pissarro, Cazin, Harpignies, Jongkind and J.P. Laurens. To Manet with his Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, befell a success of scandal; to Whistler a success of astonishment - was his White Girl indeed a person of a mediumistic manifestation? In Zola's book "l'OEuvre" we shall find a vivid description of the exhibition with its hustling crowd ready to laugh at anything.

On Whistler's advice, Legros left France in 1863 for England where he was to settle and to remain until his death, 1911. From the first he became known to Rossetti and his circle, to Watts and to Leighton; he became one of the constant exhibitors in the old Grosvenor Gallery, and was for years a famous teacher in the Slade School.
Alphonse Legros, 'Les moines bûcherons', painting, ca. 1860 (from: A catalogue of paintings, drawings, etchings and lithographs by Professor Alphonse Legros (1837-1911) from the collection of Frank E. Bliss, Esq, 1922, plate LXV)
The two pictures Les Moines Bûcherons, Le Manége or Horse Well belong to a series of designs illustrating the life of the Trapist Monks dome mainly between 1860-1863. In these the influence of Courbet is absent, and from the date of his arrival in England it grew less and less; the love of balanced or even formal design increases, till Legros, whose youth has striven to express reality for its own sake, grew more serene in his outlook, and it can be said his work belongs to that line in French art where we shall find Philippe de Champaigne, Poussin and Millet. Classed in dictionaries as a realistic painter, he is in temper a classicist - an unfrocked classicist if you will. In this purpose he is more conscious and more deliberate than Millet, more preoccupied with external form for its own sake, and his outlook less emotional or didactic. At a time when his contemporaries and friends of the Salon des Refusés became famous as realists and impressionists and were to relegate design to a secondary place, Legros became more and more exclusively a designer.

The influence of Whistler upon the generation of painters in the last years of the nineteenth century tended to estrange Legros from most of the younger English artists, for the former friends had, in course of time, become irreconcilable in aim and character alike. To meet him in the later part of his life was to listen to a friend of Baudelaire and his contemporaries, who spoke of Ingres, Delacroix, and Millet as if they were yet living, and of Manet and Rodin as if they were still promising young men. In his hostility to certain rapid fashions of the moment, he was as mordant as Degas, whom he remembered with affection and would often quote. In admiration none could be more illuminating, he was the contemporary of Fromentin whom he had met, and in conversation Raphael, Titian, and Poussin each would become as vividly present to the listener as Monsieur Ingres praising Watteau, or Millet analysing Raphael to Fantin in the Louvre on a Sunday afternoon. My personal indifference to Poussin has been scolded into reason and this great master's constructive gifts held up to admiration. To this former disciple of Courbet the harmony expressed by the divine Raphael, Holbein and Poussin counted most. Descipline, balance, design, a hatred of all exaggeration - such were the sober virtues he valued and strove for and which we shall find in the pictures and drawings upon these walls which the patient enthusiasm of their owner has brought together for our admiration.
                                                                       Charles Ricketts

(*) Paul Delaney, Charles Ricketts. A biography. London 1990, p. 51.

See also Alphonse Legros (2).