Paris’s Musée Marmottan Monet is known for its original and challenging exhibitions. This summer, the museum hosts “Engraving the Light,” the first show in the museum’s history centered entirely on engravings. The show is devoted to engravings in their various forms (including vintage photography) and is drawn from the ten thousand–work collection of the William Cuendet & Atelier de Saint-Prex Foundation, an institution in a small village on the banks of Lac Léman. The Musée Marmottan Monet’s director, Erik Desmazières, remarks in his preface to the exhibiton’s catalogue that the Marmottan could seem an unusual place to present graphic work since the museum’s permanent collections are confined to paintings, other than a few exceptions, among them a 1890–91 self-portrait in etching by Pissarro (included in the exhibition). But the show proves worthwhile.
William Cuendet (1886–1958) was a Swiss pastor who collected engravings by Dürer and Rembrandt depicting biblical messages for use in his sermons. In 1977, nineteen years after Cuendet’s death, his heirs created a foundation based on his accumulation of fifty-three plates by Rembrandt and one hundred seventeen by Dürer. The foundation soon combined forces with the Atelier de Saint-Prex, created in 1953 by the engraver Pietro Sarto. The conjoined foundation has been adding to the collection ever since, beginning with a large collection of engravings by Corot including a haunting 1858 glass-print self-portrait and followed by a number of works from various artists and periods. The genres range from seventeenth-century French Classicism (including works by Jacques Callot, Claude Lorrain, and Claude Mellan) to eighteenth-century Italian scenes (which were often aimed at attracting Grand Tourists) to nineteenth-century Impressionism.
An entire section of “Engraving the Light” is devoted to early photographs, including such highlights as Edward Steichen’s Grand Prix at Longchamp: After the Races (1907). In its early stages, photography used painstaking techniques similar to those used in the engraving process. At the time of the studio at Saint-Prex’s founding, Sarto described it as “an ill-defined association of presses and engravers,” and its spirit is said to be inspired by that of André Breton. The studio installed itself in the Saint-Prex Museum of Paintings and Papers before moving in 1989 to the Jenisch-Vevey Museum, where the impressive collection is now housed on long-term loan.
Engraving and the prints that could be created from it gained popularity in the fifteenth century following the invention of the printing press and remained popular until the advent of photography in the nineteenth century, though artists today continue to find it fruitful. Used for the production of almanacs and similar artifacts, the art form had massive appeal, and many artists soon found in it a way to produce pieces as subtle as paintings (and sometimes more demanding of the viewer) in large quantities. As I discussed in my review of a show at in Chantilly’s Musée Condé “Dürer the engraver,” Dürer was one of the first painters to embrace engravings. Pastor Cuendet’s Dürers portray scenes from the Bible, and the exhibition displays a good selection of these, including Christ on the Mount of Olives (1512) and Samson Killing the Lion (1497–98). These engravings were often created for books and are meant to be read as if they are the written word more than simply looked upon. Dürer’s biblical illustrations are thus stories in the fullest sense. The foundation also possesses Dürer’s Melencolia I (1514) made with a burin, a steel instrument considered useful by artists in conveying profundity. While the Bible engravings are stories, Melencolia I is a poem of the saturnine artist, sometimes considered Dürer’s spiritual self-portrait. Another version of this engraving appeared in the museum’s exhibition on emotion in art last year (reviewed here). Yet another version appeared in the Chantilly exhibition.
Pastor Cuendet’s other favorite engraver, Rembrandt, was also a master storyteller in his art. His Hundred Guilder Print (1649) shows that he used light (especially in the figure of Christ) and shadow in etchings in much the same way he did in his paintings. And Self-Portrait Etching at a Window (1648), also in drypoint and burin, shows the master’s depth of feeling as he depicts himself looking up from his work. He sits in the shadows while light enters from the window next to him. The etching is the sole seventeenth-century example among a series of intimate nineteenth- and twentieth-century portraits, such as in Corot’s Self-Portrait (1858), Pietro Sartro’s 1963 vision of a tormented Edgar Allan Poe, and an autobiographical etching by Pissarro (1890–91). Rembrandt’s genius for catching the naked soul, including his own, explains his presence among these later figures.
The show also includes pieces by Canaletto, whom we know best for his painted views of Venice, which were akin to the postcards of his day, so successful was he at selling his work to British tourists. But we are presented here with a different, refreshing side of the artist in Caprice: Landscape with a Pilgrim at Prayer (1740). This piece shows the romantic side of Canaletto, almost evoking Salvator Rosa.
The exhibition tells us that Piranesi sold as many pictures of Rome to visitors as Canaletto did of Venice. Since Piranesi is best known for his nightmare scenes of prisons, his customers must have been tourists with the same tastes as Dickens, whose preference for sightseeing abroad was invariably the local prison.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the graphic arts were dominated by lithographs. A number of the exhibition’s high points are in this form. Manet’s Berthe Morisot in Black (1872–74) is in very much the same style as Manet’s painted work, and one can imagine the painting he might have made of the same scene. Bonnard’s The Little Laundress (1896) is in color and captures the touching comedy of the scene which would have been invisible to the image’s central subject. Henri Fantin-Latour’s The Little Embroiderers (1898) honestly conveys the charms of its girls. Degas, meanwhile, created engravings and sketches intended for his own purposes and not to be sold. In 1876, he portrayed the Impressionist Mary Cassatt from behind as she studied a burial tomb in the Louvre’s (now closed, sadly) Musée des antiques.
This exhibition in particular—and the Musée Marmottan Monet in general—offers a good way of escaping France’s summer heat wave.