In 1874, French printmaker Félix Bracquemond (1833-1914) submitted more works than any other artist to the inaugural impressionist exhibition. The work Bracquemond displayed—at his friend Edgar Degas’s invitation—included portraits of his artistic contemporaries, naturalistic landscapes, reproductive etchings of historical European paintings, and emblematic images of birds accompanied by poems (such as Margot the Critique, or The Magpie).
Bracquemond and each of the more than 50 members of the impressionist cooperative possessed varied aesthetic goals, sharing only a determination toward artistic independence from the State-sponsored annual Salon. Today, however, major exhibitions tend to pigeonhole Impressionism as landscapes and informal portraiture by select artists, namely Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot, and/or Camille Pissarro. Whether for that reason or the fact that Bracquemond himself did not identify closely with the label “impressionist,” the artist’s work is often not considered alongside that of his impressionist contemporaries. The special exhibition Félix Bracquemond: Impressionist Innovator (on view Feb 14 –Oct 4, 2015) reintroduces this independent-minded artist through a selection of more than eighty works on paper and tableware objects, including his most imaginative and groundbreaking reinterpretations of French art and decorative arts traditions.
After learning etching through self-directed study, Bracquemond emerged as a leader of the Etching Revival in France. In 1863, he co-founded the Société des Aquafortistes (Society of Etchers) with enterprising publisher Alfred Cadart and fellow printmakers, whose goal was to rekindle interest in original etchings among artists and the public alike. VMFA’s exhibition includes a frontispiece that Bracquemond produced for one of the group’s albums—portfolios made available by subscription—as well as original compositions published by arts journal that promoted these experimental “painter-printmakers.”
Bracquemond’s distinctive bird imagery—well-represented in the exhibition—often reflects his taste for Japanese art. A pioneer of Japanese-inspired compositions who had procured a volume of Hokusai’s Manga (translated as “Random Sketches”) as early as 1856, Bracquemond next built his reputation as a decorative arts innovator by infusing ceramic designs with motifs adapted from Japanese print sources. The Service Rousseau, which features birds, fish, insects, and flowers that he borrowed from Manga, helped propel the popularity of Japonisme throughout France. Bracquemond briefly served as artistic director at Sèvres porcelain factory before assuming that role for Haviland Limoges porcelain manufactory until 1881. Despite these successful forays into ceramics, Bracquemond remained dedicated to exploring the vast aesthetic possibilities of the print making process into the early 20th century.
Selections for this exhibition, intended to represent the artist’s wide-ranging activity, are drawn entirely from the Frank Raysor Collection, which preserves nearly the complete œuvre of Bracquemond, including many unique and rare impressions.
—Kristie Couser, Curatorial Assistant for the Mellon Collections