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Appreciation for small things

November 28, 1980



This is terribly unimportant little painting. Even in the few books devoted to the art of Henri-Latour, it has been more or less overlooked. This French 19 th-century artist's portrait and figure groups, his flower paintings (he particularly favored heavy-bloomed flowers like peonies, roses and chrysanthemums, rather too full of petals) and his ecstatic Wagnerian romances are all given due attention. This unpretentious painting of a mere white cup and saucer with a spoon usually goes unmentioned. It can be easily dismissed as a whim, or a quick study of no great signification. And yet it has been enjoyed and valued enough to have been included in the collection of a couple who were close friends of the artist, and eventually to have found its place in one of Britain's finest museums, the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. It has a simplicity, and a quietness, and a modesty, that surprisingly have the effect of making it more rather than less noticeable in a display of large ambitious paintings. Its beauty is partly due to is extreme modesty at first sight. There's nothing much to it. But somehow it makes you look again.

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I haven't managed to find out any special reasons Fantin may have had for painting this subject. Small domestic items of this sort appear in some of his large compositions, but this is a self-sufficient picture, and doesn't have the kind of semi-improvisation that might be expected in a study for another work. It is almost as if he had momentarily decided that all the high, expressive music of his fantasies, all the careful and organized observation and solemnity in his figure compositions, and all the Dutch richness and weight of his flower arrangements might untimately have less intrinsic meaning for a painter than the most ordinary object in the world.

After all, every problem a painter could be challenged by is here: the subtlety of representing roundness, the mysteries of inner and outer space, of hollow and solid, the problem of how to indicate with unmistakable clarity, without fuss, the form of a highly reflective object: the teaspoon not only presents this difficulty, it also disappears behind the cut in an elusive perspective that might strike terror into the most stout-hearted painter. Fantin has been described as a master of "white": a picture of lilies used to illustrate the point. This cup and saucer tell it even better. He has understood and represented the way in which a white object takes light, its shadows and interior reflections, its changes of surface and its graduation of tone. Whiteness is something we often take for granted, no less than we do cups and saucers: Fantin-Latour has given a profound attention to both.

Not only is such study of the commonplace frequently a primary motive for artistic activity, but specifically it has for centuries been the concern of "still life" -- of painting objects for their own sake. Why have artists so persistently been interested in the depiction of mere things, inanimate and motionless? Perhaps it is partly because such subject matter allows for all the vitality and expressiveness to be supplied by the artist's brush or pensil: the object doesn't live, but the artist's art does.

Not that there isn't also an element in the greatest still life paintings of the secret identity imaginatively contained by objects. Van Gogh's chair is not just any chair, it is his chair and all chairs, and in the artist's strong vision, it almost comes alive, it's wood no longer dead. Fantin-Latour is, in his still life pictures, unemotional compared with Van Gogh, but his cup and saucer nevertheless celebrate a traditional fascination for the strange transmutation involved in turning one object into another: a piece of china, in this case, into a sensitive oil painting. He is just one in a line of painters of the simple object (apparently simple, at least) that includes Velazque, Zurbaran, Chardin and -- in the 20th century -- that master of gentle-toned, trembling oil paint, Morandi. This Italian invested neat groupings of favorite bottles with a quite and an appreciativeness similar to Fantin-Latour's for his lone cup, saucer and spoon.

:Christopher Andreae