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Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875)

P.5901-R At the age of 31 the artist of this portrait, Marcellin Desboutin, moved from France to Tuscany and became a dealer in old-master paintings. He also invested in property but lost a great deal of money when Rome was declared capital of Italy instead of Florence. In 1874, with his fortune squandered, Desboutin moved back to France and dedicated himself to painting and printmaking. He produced around 250 prints engraved almost always entirely in drypoint. Drypoint is an intaglio printmaking technique, executed by scoring the surface of the metal plate with a needle-like tool. It has two distinctive characteristics: the short, scratched appearance of the lines and the burr, which is the term given to the metal pushed up by the sharp point of the needle on either side of the line. The burr retains the ink in a way that results in a soft blur when the paper is printed. This fuzzy blur stands in stark contrast to the straight lines of the shallow scratches. Drypoint is essentially still a line technique but with it printmakers can achieve areas of localised tone. The disadvantage is that the burr is very fragile and wears down quickly in the printing press, meaning fewer good impressions can be pulled from the plate than etchings or engravings, for example.

In France during the second half of the nineteenth century painters were encouraged to try their hand at printmaking by a man called Alfred Cadart. In 1861 Cardart founded La Société des aquafortistes (The Society of Etchers) in collaboration with the printer Auguste Delâtre. Their intention was to champion the etching technique: to draw attention to its creative possibilities and place etchings in the category of ‘fine art’. Between 1862 and 1867 the Society published monthly albums comprising limited-edition works by artists such as Eugène Delacroix, Edouard Manet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Felix Bracquemond. A year before he died Cadart launched the annual L’Eaux-Forte which continued to promote artists’ etchings. Some of Desboutin’s drypoints were published by Cadart (see P.5900-R).Since the majority of his prints are portraits some commentators have likened his output to that of Anthony Van Dyck’s, whose Iconography of the 1630s contained likenesses of the of artists and men of letters of his time (engraved by printmakers working after Van Dyck’s designs). Desboutin’s contemporaries mused on why he might have preferred drypoint to etching: they thought that because the technique was perfect for a quickly executed sketch it was suited to artists who had impulsive personalities and who desired spontaneity. Many of Desboutin’s prints have been executed in a free and rapid manner, but this cannot of his portrait of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, which is undescribed in any catalogues of his work. It dates from the last decade of Desboutin’s life, during which he was not very prolific (he engraved very little after 1895). In this portrait Desboutin demonstrates his commutate skill in the drypoint technique. In contrast to some of his earlier prints where forms are delineated only by outlines, here almost the entire surface is worked over with the needle. In the clothing the plate is so densely wrought that from a certain distance it strikes the eye as one area of tone rather than a mass of individual lines. In areas where the lines are discernible the scratches are noticeably different – the long sweeping ones that make up the sitter’s shock of grey hair, in comparison to the shorter lines that form the facial features of the aging artist.

The Fitzwilliam Museum has a good collection of Desboutin’s prints from throughout his career (including a few that are dedicated by the artist to a recipient). Among the sitters are Émile Zola (who thought Desboutin an unforgettable figure) and Degas, whom Desboutin encouraged to start making prints again in 1875. It was in one of their frequent haunts that Degas famously painted his friend: in The Absinthe drinker (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) Desboutin sits with a female figure (the actress/artist’s model Ellen Andrée) wearing old slippers, a dirty jacket and smoking a pipe. The café, a regular of the Parisian literary and artistic avant garde, was in Place Pigalle near Montmartre in the 18th aggrondissement of Paris. Desboutin was also the model for Manet for his painting L’Artiste.

To see the Museum’s collection of prints by Desboutin, click here

To see works printed by Auguste Delâtre, click here

To see portraits etched by Van Dyck and information about his Iconography, click here

Museum Number P.5901-R