The Embroiderers (Les Brodeuses)
Black chalk and graphite on laid paper
Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller; D.935.1.101
Henri Fantin-Latour is best known for his mature works, which focus primarily on portraits, still-lifes, and imaginary themes. Compared to many of his contemporaries and friends, including several impressionist artists, he executed relatively few paintings outdoors; Fantin is instead regarded primarily as a studio artist. There are also more than 150 prints attributed to him. His drawings, although apparently simple and straightforward, are in fact carefully rendered to define the contours and forms of his subjects while only faintly hinting at the setting. His technique often involves applying layers of cross-hatching to delineate a range of tones in black chalk or charcoal—from brightest to darkest—and then using sharper graphite to highlight the outlines. The overall effect creates textural variety and subtle suggestions of the mood.
Early in his career Fantin produced more than a dozen drawings, prints, and paintings of women sewing or embroidering, reflecting his attraction to everyday domestic surroundings. The models were his two sisters, Nathalie and Marie, but rather than treating these works as portraits, focused on depicting specific features, the artist concentrated on outward physical forms. The low viewpoint, selection of an angle that joins the two women, and apparent unification of the figures and the furniture heighten the sense that Fantin was principally interested in capturing their overall shapes and the effects of light and shadows, transforming an otherwise familiar scene into an exercise in observation.
By the time Fantin arrived in Paris in 1850 to study art, Thomas Couture had established an independent school and was a popular teacher. Although the younger artist did not work directly with Couture, his friendship with some of Couture’s pupils made him aware of the master’s innovative approach and emphasis on preserving the qualities of the sketch throughout the various stages in the execution of a work of art. With regard to drawing, Couture famously recommended that the first step should be to observe the subject through half-closed eyes, to distinguish the “major divisions of light and dark.” Fantin evidently adapted some of Couture’s lessons to serve his own objectives.
Last Updated: 1/21/10