Small Apartments and Big Dreams: Print Collecting in the Fin de Siècle

Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, The Street, poster for the printer Charles Verneau (1896), color lithograph on wove paper, image 234.5 x 296 cm, sheet 242 x 299 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, purchased with support from the BankGiro Loterij.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which opened in 1973, has been collecting French fin-de-siècle prints since 2000, when it purchased around 800 prints and artists’ books from Richard Feldhaus, a German private collector. The print department now holds some 1,800 works from this period. In 2012 the museum’s current curator of prints and drawings, Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho, organized the exhibition “Beauty in Abundance: Highlights of the Print Collection” (with an associated publication, Printmaking in Paris: The Rage for Prints at the Fin de Siècle; see Art in Print May–June 2014). She has now curated the museum’s ambitious show “Prints in Paris 1900: From Elite to the Street,” which spills over two floors of the museum’s exhibition wing; the lower floor is dedicated to the realm of the private collector and incorporates four recreated domestic interiors in which prints would have been viewed, and the upper floor focuses on the role of the print in the street life of modern Paris. The exhibition is on view until 11 June 2017 and is accompanied by an expansive 192-page catalogue.

Catherine Bindman: I am curious about how the Van Gogh Museum came to have a print collection. Van Gogh himself is not primarily known as a printmaker and he died in 1890 when the fin-de-siècle print revolution was in its infancy. Was there an existing print collection in the museum before the 2000 acquisition of the Feldhaus material?

Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho: The graphic collection began with the prints of van Gogh himself, as well as prints from his collection and that of his brother Theo. Vincent collected prints from British illustrated magazines like The Graphic and The Illustrated London News when he was in London between 1873 and 1875, as well as roughly 600 ukiyo-e prints and about 120 works by contemporary French printmakers, acquired during his stay in Paris in 1886 and 1887 and now in the museum. A few other prints came to us in various ways. In the 1980s and 1990s we concentrated on Montmartre cityscapes and artists’ portraits. The opportunity to purchase the Feldhaus prints gave us something very specific to build on. Since then, the French fin de siècle has become our focal point and we’ve been actively collecting in that field. Though van Gogh died before the whole print revolution of the 1890s, his friends Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec were players in it, and I am sure he would have participated as well. He believed in printmaking as art for the people.

Pierre Bonnard, poster for France-Champagne (1891), color lithograph on wove paper, image 79.5 x 59.7 cm, sheet 107 x 84 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

CB The current exhibition and catalogue examine two very different worlds that seem to have coexisted at the turn of the century—the rough-and-tumble one of posters and street art, and another more refined one of somewhat rarified limited-edition works. What prompted you to investigate this?

FRRdC When I started working as associate curator at the museum in 2007, the print collection was sleeping in the strongroom waiting to be kissed awake. We hardly knew what was in it since the department had been focused on cataloguing the van Gogh drawings. In 2010 I wrote a research plan to catalogue and document the whole collection. The Van Gogh Foundation belonging to the artist’s heirs financed the 2000 acquisition as well as my research. In the 2012 exhibition and catalogue I summarized the existing literature and presented the highlights. A lot of that research found its way to the website (http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/prints). All the details are there and it gave me the opportunity to tell a bigger story in the current exhibition. When you work with actual prints and can compare things side by side, you can easily see when they come from different worlds. I was surprised at how different works by the same artist could be in terms of size, technique, visual language and delicacy. The underbelly of Parisian printmaking was so much more fully represented in the literature than the more intellectual and poetic “fine” prints—there was not really a complete picture. But the idea of looking more closely at the worlds in which these prints were intended to function and the kinds of people who were collecting them was not unique. In art history everyone is now obsessed with reception theory—it is in the air!

CB You describe in the catalogue how collecting became “something of a fetish” in 1890s Paris as collectors began to acquire both fine, limited-edition prints and popular prints in great quantities.

FRRdC You have the crumbling of artistic hierarchies at the same time as the rise of a bourgeoisie with small apartments and big dreams. They wanted to buy art that reflected a certain kind of lifestyle. The idea of the interior also changed from that of a mainly female domain to a male retreat from the hectic life of the city.

Georges Bottini, The Shop Window of Sagot (1898), color lithograph on wove paper, image 28.7 x 18.5 cm, sheet 37.9 x 27.9 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

CB The standard view has been that printmaking in France during this period was essentially democratic—characterized by multiples and posters intended to reach a wide audience—but you argue that the real picture was more complex.

FRRdC I wanted to address the nuances and to suggest that there was a hierarchy within the print world. Not every print by every artist was meant for a large audience. How democratic was any of Bonnard’s “democratic” work, for example?

His poster for the snobby journal La Revue blanche (1895) shows an inventive play of word and image, but it is a visual language that would be lost on a public hoarding—why would that be a street poster? The size is quite modest compared to a street poster too. It seems that it was more likely meant for bookshops or places visited by the more cultivated public that was being targeted. Bonnard’s champagne poster France-Champagne (1891) was supposedly a commercial advertisement and was always said to have created instant fame for him. But Bonnard confessed to Thadée Natanson, the chief art critic of La Revue blanche, that he himself had struggled to find one actually hanging in the streets. The success of this poster probably had more to do with the way it was received by critics and collectors, and the fact that it was shown in exhibitions, than to its prominence on public streets.

CB You dedicate a whole chapter in the catalogue to the role of the collector, the amateur d’estampe.

FRRdC When I think about the amateur as a type I think of Edmond de Goncourt [portrayed in Felix Bracquemond’s etching of 1882]. He was sort of the ideal collector at the time and he wrote a whole book, La maison d’un artiste (1880), in which he takes his admirers on a very detailed tour of all his beloved objects. People like him not only bought prints but also collected paintings, drawings, bibliophile editions and decorative objects.

But there was also a group of hardcore print collectors, nerdy and fetishistic connoisseurs like Eugène Rodrigues and Gustave Bourcard, who wrote catalogues raisonnés of the prints of Félicien Rops and Félix Buhot respectively. They tended to be educated and knowledge-able people with a sharp eye. I tried to note the contemporary prices of every print and poster throughout the catalogue—a single print was not that ex-pensive but a true collector would never have just one print.

Serious collectors tended to be lawyers, notaries, literary people and art critics, part of a really small, closed, male circle. If you published an edition of 100 prints you only needed a circle of, let us say, 150 people to be self-sufficient—during this period new prints seem to have been distributed to only about that many collectors worldwide. And print collectors and bibliophiles were generally the same people—the same names crop up all the time.

Fernand Louis Gottlob, Peintres Lithographes (1899), color lithograph, 115.6 x 76.7 cm., Musée Carnavalet, Paris.

CB In the catalogue you also mention female print collectors.

FRRdC There is this standard bias that women decorate and men collect. But there are countless images in the collection of women looking at prints in Paris during the 1890s and the question came up: were they actually collectors? The print dealer Edmond Sagot wrote down in his account book everyone who came into his shop, and because the French language distinguishes between a male and female customer you can see how many women there were, as well as their nationalities and the sorts of things they bought. [Georges Bottini’s color lithograph of 1898, The Shop Window of Sagot, shows a group of elegantly attired women looking at prints though the glass.] It turned out that women mainly bought framed posters and decorative prints by artists like Eugène Grasset and Alphonse Mucha. Men would spend more money and buy large numbers of prints for their portfolios.

Interestingly, most of the women were American rather than French. American women went to Europe for cultural tours and on shopping sprees to buy couture—and indeed the women shown looking at prints seem to be very fashionable. Prints were obviously not just purchased by the nerdy elite but by the fashionable elite too. But I have no idea why French women do not seem to have been buying much. More research clearly needs to be done on this.

CB The intimate scale of most of the fine prints suited them to private contemplation in the domestic interior. You talk about the cabinet de travail or private study where collectors typically housed their books and prints. Do you think the fact that they were sized for private rather than public consumption had an impact on the kinds of images that appeared in these prints—Rops’s femmes fatales and prostitutes, for example, or Redon’s explorations of the darker regions of the human psyche?

FRRdC Of course, this was something we already read about in Peter Parshall’s wonderful exhibition catalogue The Darker Side of Light: Arts of Privacy, 1850–1900.1 But I can add a few things. With Redon it makes such a difference when you compare his paintings and his prints, partly because of the different viewers he was targeting and partly because of the differences in the ways paintings and prints were kept and looked at. And it is also to do with the monochrome nature of certain print techniques. Everyone talks about the color revolution at the fin de siècle—it was only when we were tagging these prints for the website that I found that about 240 prints were tagged “darkness.” It forced me to look differently at the collection.

But, yes, the intimate nature of prints also had an effect on subject matter, making it better suited to dark, subversive and erotic imagery. And I like the idea of the print as a portal to mystery and meditation, which demands a slow way of looking that we hardly know how to do anymore. Rops’s pupil Louis Legrand, who made popular illustrations, created an allegory of prostitution for Le Courrier français in 1888 and was sent to prison on grounds of obscenity. The same year, Rops, who had made much more explicit prints on this subject, received the Legion of Honor. But Rops kept out of the limelight and his prints were sold to collectors by trusted dealers like Gustav Pellet “under the counter” for private viewing. I hope to write an article soon on this fascinating case study.

François-Rupert Carabin, Bookcase (1890), walnut, iron, glass, joinery, wrought ironwork (Albert Servat), metal, hardwood, 290 x 215 x 83 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

CB I notice that you included furniture pieces in the exhibition—unusual objects for the storage and display of fine books and prints.

FRRdC This is something that has been completely overlooked. These pieces are often still in use by museums and seen as functional objects, not as art objects—maybe with the exception of the outrageous bookcase by Francois-Rupert Carabin with all the nude figures (1890). Sometimes they were designed by major artists and designers. Collectors wanted everything in their interiors to be beautiful and artistic. They knew the artists and asked them to “dress” the books with special bindings and then to design the furniture to house them. The furniture for holding large portfolios and displaying posters is really interesting too. If people know of other examples, please let me know!

CB In the catalogue you vividly describe the contrasting experiences of the print through the idea of a bourgeois Parisian collector, moving from the gloom of his cabinet de travail where he might leaf through portfolios and albums of fine prints, out into the world of the street, with its brilliantly colored, often high-quality posters on the walls, and sheet music and illustrated periodicals on the stalls. But what, if anything, do we know of the impact of these popular images on the general public?

FRRdC The whole of the 19th century is full of these polarities. But of course it was the cultural elites who wrote about it all. People in the street did not have a voice—the masses remain mute. Who was the passerby anyway? Everyone and nobody at the same time and therefore impossible to fathom. The public print section was harder to study. The people who wrote about posters only wrote about the artistic ones, and elevated certain people who ended up with the Legion of Honor and getting into museums like this one. We only have art with a capital A. For a more trustworthy account of graphic art on the streets of Paris, one can turn to photography and other visual sources of the time, so that is what we did.

CB It is astonishing how quickly the worlds of the fine and popular print begin to overlap as private collectors began to acquire the best posters (even peeling them off the walls before canny dealers managed to acquire first runs of them for sale) as well as petites estampes, the small posters designed for private portfolios or albums. At the same time, you describe how critics and collectors began to construct a canon of French artistic posters with Chéret at the top and younger artists like Bonnard, Grasset, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Théophile Steinlen immediately after him. Why did they seek to bring this street art into the domestic interior and officially categorize it as art?

FRRdC Collectors always want to be pioneers. They want to delve into unknown terrain. And many of these posters truly are magnificent. Posters helped artists to find a new artistic language that was explicitly modern. It freed them from the academy—they were the place where the real magic happened, and a few visionary collectors saw this. Soon, collecting posters grew into a fashionable hobby for the well-to-do. More and more dealers began catering to this larger group and that is when the private print and the popular print transformed into new hybrids like the poster meant for the interior and the decorative print.

Félix Vallotton, The Beautiful Pin from series Intimités (1897–98), woodcut on wove paper, image 17.7 x 22.2 cm, sheet 25.4 x 32.3 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, purchased with support from the BankGiro Loterij and the members of The Yellow House.

CB I remember a lot of reproductions of Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster for the café-chantant Divan Japonais and Steinlen’s Tournée du Chat Noir from my distant student days. It was interesting to discover that such posters were used as decoration by students, artists and other bohemian types from the very beginning. You note in the catalogue that the critic Arsène Alexandre wrote that almost every painter and sculptor living in Paris around 1900 had a Chéret poster as decoration.

FRRdC Even Pablo Picasso’s The Blue Room (1901), which is probably set in his Montmartre studio, shows Toulouse-Lautrec’s May Milton poster hanging on the wall. The idea of appropriation from the streets was very much a bohemian idea, and part of the anarchist movement too. They liked the heroics of the fact that they were a bit ripped or discolored—it gave them even more cachet.

CB What sort of prints is the museum collecting now—and should we expect another exhibition in the next few years?

FRRdC The most frantic period of collecting in this area is finished but we will keep buying very selectively. In 2015 we bought four very rare proofs of color lithographs by Toulouse-Lautrec through private sale—At the Moulin Rouge: La Goulue and her Sister (1892); The Female Clown at the Moulin Rouge (1897); Dance at the Moulin Rouge (1897) and The Grand Theater Box (1897). Recently, we also bought Steinlen’s poster The Street (1896), made for the printer Charles Verneau, and Felix Vallotton’s woodcut series Intimitiés (1897–98). To me, this set of eleven black woodcuts showing an emotional drama between a bourgeois couple is one of the finest of the period, demonstrating masterful technique and intriguingly dark subject matter. And I have more big things on my wish list. You don’t get the exhibition wing for prints very often, but of course I will do small presentations in the print room and I hope to do another big exhibition at some point. I want to do more work on the Nabis—I am fascinated by the idea of the peintre-graveur and the connection between prints and paintings during this time. But yes, we are still very active in the field and we are quite an exception—I am the only curator specializing in 19th-century prints in all of Holland!

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  1. Peter Parshall, et al., The Darker Side of Light: Arts of Privacy, 1850–1900 (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2009). []