If there was one thing the British artist William Rothenstein liked better than drawing ageing or elderly men, it was reviving elderly reputations. When he knocked on Alphonse Legros' door, Legros had been retired some years from his position as professor at the Slade School of Art. Legros was given to favouritism, and Rothenstein had not been amongt his favourites (the real favourites had left before Rothenstein even arrived) but undeterred as ever, Rothenstein persuaded various artists to chip in and buy a picture that he discovered had been lying unsold in Legros' studio for years. The painting was then handed over to the Tate and a small revival in Legros' fortunes began, based largely on the kind of prints and drawings you see here. Looking at the silverpoint portrait above of an unknown man, which dates from 1898, you can see why it happened.
It is academic in the good sense of the word. It owes alot to the Italian old masters, who he venerated, but more importantly it also suited the classical revival of the times very well. Many years ago, I picked up some plans and drawings by the Sheffield architect, Frank Wilson, including a fine copy of the Gate of the Agora at Athens, taken from James Stuart and Nicholas Revett's The Antiquities of Athens of 1767. (This portrait of him by Legros is from the same year as my drawing). Legros may not have endeared himself to his students with his offhand behaviour ('not bad' was a fairly standard comment on their work) but he had a background that reached back to the great French classicist, Ingres, and I think he wisely put his old realism to one side to some extent for something more stylish when he set about the work you see here.
But what strikes me most about this work, is how varied it is. He is not as good an etcher as he is a draughtsman, but the new fashion for lithographic drawings started off by Charles Ricketts actually suited both Legros and the time very well. He had been making self-portraits for many years, but the sheer ghostliness of the one below shows just how far he could adapt a fashionable medium to his own artistic ends. Unlike Rothenstein and William Strang (the real favourite of his) Legros had something wider and more profound to say. In some ways, he came out of retirement like a seer.
In other respects, it is exactly the kind of Rembrandtism his Slade students were taught to do; to work on the point of the pencil and to introduce a flurry of east-to-west shading. But the haunted look is not the work of a student; Legros could transcend his own method. He builds up from the background with a convincing discrimination.