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img764I am often asked what is the oldest catalog in our collection? Here is the answer: An art dealer’s catalog dating from 1910 for an exhibition held at their premises in New York City. The title, gold inked, is The Homes of the Men of 1830, the exhibition deals with the start of the French Barbizon School of painting, or as some prefer the Pre-Impressionist painters, or so you would think at first glance.

img759From the introductory page, we can safely assume that this dealer must have been well financed to have a catalog printed like this one. Though modest in size, measuring 9″x 6″, it is, in effect, a book. The firm lists its founding year as 1850, which is impressive enough, being in business 90 years by the time this catalog was printed.

The catalog has a greyish cloth, hardbound binding, and is printed on thick watermarked Strathmore paper with 75 numbered pages and 6 black and white photogravures interspersed through out the book.

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The free flyleaf has a printers mark below the copyright notice. We pause at the title page, it has the name of Alexis Jean Fournier (1865-1948) on it. The book starts with an introduction by painter Herbert Faulkner. Impressive so far. From the name, you would think Fournier is a Frenchman, and perhaps the original article was written in the French language. Not so. This catalog is one slick piece of somewhat misleading advertising.

Alexis Fournier had a great idea! He visited all the studios and homes of those painters that formed the so called Barbizon School. He painted their homes and studios and brought his paintings back to sell, and, perhaps, educate those “ignorant” American masses about the romantic “back to nature” ideas of the Barbizon School. Foreign cities had been adequately painted by artists, in the past, traveling overseas often as prize winners of a local art competition. The idea of painting the houses or working environment of a specific group of artists , and painting them in the same style of those artists was an absolutely new theme.

Similar educational ideas had been developed by early 19th Century photographers who often were painters themselves, traveling all over the world to photographically record customs and ancient monuments, like the Egyptian Pyramids. In fact, the earliest officially appointed photographers in France were tasked by the French Government to photographically record the existing monuments and ruins throughout the country in order to preserve its history. Incidentally, Fournier’s son became a photographer.

The best place to exhibit such paintings would be at the gallery of a well known long established dealer in New York, who also has some of the original paintings by those French Barbizon artists (mentioned on the introductory page above), and who was responsible for selling a large number of paintings to museums in America! A true modern publicity coup. So how does Fournier go about selling and presenting his novel concept you might ask?

Each artist is represented in the book on a few pages (example above) with a short biography and/or an anecdote explaining the painter’s relevance. In short, the book is both an art exhibition catalog, as well as, a art history book, in its own right, by a painter who works in the same style as the masters described in the book.

img766The murky photographs of the paintings by Fournier have titles like Rousseau’s Studio, etc. because that is what he set out to paint.

Who was Alexis Jean Fournier? He was born to French Canadian parents in St. Paul, Minnesota. He studied with the painter Douglas Volk who was the founder of the Minneapolis Art School in 1866. Fournier quickly became known for his naturalistic landscapes. At the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, a major work, a 50ft x 12ft mural called the Cliff Dwellers (Colorado) was displayed.

In the same year, he moved to Paris where he studied at the Julian Academy under the painters Henri Harpignies and Benjamin Constant. He was often referred to as the last American Barbizon painter. Through pure chance, he got involved with Elbert Hubbard the founder of the Roycrofters, the best known American Arts and Crafts Movement in East Aurora near Buffalo in upstate New York. Soon Fournier became the artist in residence in this “utopian” artisan community. It was, the first in the nation, based on the principles of John Ruskin and William Morris, the two fathers of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, who advocated simplicity and integrity in their aesthetics and promoted social progress for the working class.

These “new” ideas invoked artists and art lovers, as well as, writers to promote these novel “utopian” ideas. Civic promotional societies were formed throughout the country and best known are those in Boston, Massachusetts and Woodstock, New York. All contributed in numerous ways to the expansion of the Modernist views of art in the early 20th Century. The Roycroft Inn in East Aurora has a number of murals painted by Fournier that can be seen on the premises.

PBS made a movie about the Roycrofters and the website gives interesting information on the Arts and Crafts Movement with artists biographies. The link is here. Bibliography: (not used in this post)

Alexis Jean Fournier: A Barbizon in East Aurora. Buffalo, NY: Burchfield Center, Western New York Forum for American Art, State University College at Buffalo, 1979.

Coen, Rena Neumann. Alexis Jean Fournier, the Last American Barbizon. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1985.

_____. In the Mainstream: The Art of Alexis Jean Fournier (1865-1948). St. Cloud, MN: North Star Press, 1985.

Haselbauer, Ann. “Roycroft’s Painter and His Photo Secessionist Son.” Style 8 no. 1 (Feb. 1995): 31-33.


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