14 March 2014

A Frenchman In The New World: J.E. Laboureur

Jean Emile Laboureur - La vie artistique, 1931, Artists Rights Society, Paris.

A female art student gazes at painting of a luscious nude woman.     We can't quite place the style but it must something French, no?  As for the men lurking around the corner, they don't look like museum guards about to rearrange the pictures with that dagger.  The come-as-you-are picnic on the rocky Atlantic coast is one of many works inspired by Edouard Manet's  Le dejeuner sur le'herbe(L'Ile Desert. Nova Scotia, 1914, Harris Schrank Fine Prints, NYC.).  

If the French think of Jean Emile Laboureur (1877, Nantes – 1943, Morbihan) as an artist underrated, what can we say about his reputation on this side of the Atlantic?  Laboureur made several trips to North America, his first in 1904 where he tried on a new first name – Jean (his birth name was simply Emile but like another French artist I featured recently, Lucien Levy-Dhurmer., he wanted to differentiate his mature efforts from what he had done before).  Laboureur taught print-making at the Art Students League in New York, but their website makes no mention of him. 
When Laboureur published a series of etchings In The Pittsburgh Mills in 1906, he was not the first European to find pictorial interest in the workings of American industry.  The Norwegian painter Fritz Thaulow had visited Pittsburgh in 1898, where his painting Steel Mills Along the Monongahela River hangs today in the Duquesne Club. What distinguished Laboureur's series Life In The Steel Mills is just that – life.   Not only does he portray the processes of industrial production, he shows the people who did that work as part of their daily lives.  Indeed, it is difficult to imagine Laboureur leaving people out; his least memorable works turn out to be  'pure' landscapes. 
In the Pittsburgh Mills: A Series of Ten Original Etchings by J.E. Laboureur, Homestead, PA: 1906, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

 Battery Park - New York City, 1907,  Musee Franco-Americain,  Blerancourt.

 Broadway, 1907, Idbury Prints - UK


Gratte-ciel en construction (Skyscraper Under Construction), 1910, Musee Franco-Americain, Blerancourt

Michel Cournot, writing in Le Monde, was the first to pinpoint 1913 as the year when Laboureur assimilated cubism into “l'histoire de la gravure francaise.”  

Le tir forain (The Shooting Gallery, c.1920, Harris Schrank Fine Prints, NYC) is regarded, and rightly I think, as one of the most impressive cubist prints ever created. As it is reproduced here, I won't describe it at length but its multiple imbrication of planes  probably shouln't work and would not have been a success in the hands of an artist less sure of his command of the burin (the tool used to incise lines). What was it about cubism that...... ?   Laboureur had tried painting early on, under the influence of Impressionism and his early etchings and lithographs were executed under the tutelage of  August Lepere and Toulouse-Lautrec, respectively and noticeably by the forceful woodcuts of his friend Felix Vallotton, the Nabi from Switzerland.  The fractured, mixed-up planes of cubism certainly appealed to Laboureur's urbane sense of humor.  They also enabled him to demonstrate the elegance of his line.  This may seem an obvious comment about the work of a graphic artist, but Laboureur was nothing if not a wizard with lines.  Even his complex, carefully worked-out prints of industrial Pittsburgh  or Gratte-ciel en construcion (Skyscraper Under Construction) were neither messy nor overdone.   

The French have a term for the period between the two world wars – they call it Les  Annees Folles, The Crazy Years.  During that time Laboureur perfected a style that combined fluid lines with the overlapping perspectives of cubism.  Whether he used a few lines or a baroque extravaganza of them in an image made little difference; the result was always ingenious and elegant, with undertones of urbane humor. This is ...in the relatively static world of graphic arts. In Laboureur's hand, I can imagine the burin purring.  To enumerate his production is dizzying.    He created a major portion of his 1700 prints,  designed and illustrated some 70 books,  organized exhibitions, and taught printing to Marie Laurencin and Andre Dunoyer de Segonzac, an artist friend of the writer Colette.

Laborueur died at his country home in Brittany in 1943.  As a graveur, he belongs to the lineage of modern print makers that begins with Francisco Goya.

Thanks to Neil Philip for sharing information on an artist we both love, and to Idbury Prints for the image.


Les Trois Pecheuse (The Three Washerwomen), 1929, New England Art Exchange, Peterborough, NH.


Neil said...

I love the etching of Battery Park - so much expressed with such elegant restraint. I think you're right that it wasn't until Cubism came along (and gradually merged into Art Deco) that Laboureur found his true distinctive voice. "Imbrication" (overlapping like tiles, shingles, leaves or scales) seems just the right term for his handling of planes; a lovely word I hadn't come across before.

Jane said...

Neil, thank you. A roofer once explained to me what imbrication is - not very elegant but once you know what it means, you can see why there's a word for it. Without the assonance it has in English sky scraper would be about as graceless as "gratte-ciel" is in French. According to my dictionary, sometimes the word "gratte" means scraper and sometimes it means canker! Nothing graceful about that.