Sunday, 28 April 2013

Alphonse Legros and the 1890s


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.
Different again is the portrait of the Slade student, Alice Knewstubb, who went on to marry Rothenstein. It certainly does not have the intensity of the previous self-portrait. Legros has made his own interests quite clear. But the ghosts of the past are there, all the same. Yet what he achieves is someone recognisably modern. Unlike his knowing and nineties satyr, below, Alice is one of us. But as satyrs go (and I like them) it's not bad, at all.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Silas. I'm not always sure how readers will take posts like this, so positive feedback is good. More to come.

  2. I have been lucky enough to have found a copy of Le Gros' Death of a vagabond and bought it simply for love. However I am confused by the technique used to produce the print. I at first took it to be an etching but then saw that the paper was in no way embossed as you get with etchings. Then I thought is it a lithograph, which would disappoint me , or drypoint which I know nothing about. Could drypoint print and appear like an etching without the press embossing the paper in production. Anyone out there willing to clarify this for me? Many thanks.

  3. The Museum of Fine Art, Boston, has Death of a Vagabond down as etching with aquatint and drypoint. All three techniques would leave a platemark on the paper but as Legros sometimes left a wide border around the image, it is possible that someone has cut it down and removed the platemark.

    You need to send a few more details. Is it signed and how big is the sheet?The image is quite heavily etched apparently (I've not actually seen it myself) so you would be able to feel the etched lines with your finger. The images held by museums I have looked at are all signed in pencil.

    I suppose it could be a photographic reproduction but someone would have needed permission either from Legros or the estate to make one. I'm not an expert on Legros but it sounds kind of unlikely. I will have a look in Guichard and do some more searching.

    Meanwhile have a look at the earlier version held by the British Museum.