French artist and engraver Marcellin Gilbert Desboutin was a much-beloved and celebrated character of the bohemian circles in 19th-century France. His eccentricities, married with his keen sense of precision and artistic verve, produced an artist often called ‘the greatest engraver of the century.’
Desboutin was son to the Baroness de Rochefort-Dalie Farges and received a thorough education as a result of this noble lineage. The young Desboutin is said to have enjoyed drawing and copying from the works of the old Masters during his school days at the prestigious Collège Stanislas de Paris. This is an interest he continued to cultivate as he furthered his studies, focussing on law.
Such an inspiring hobby must have called much too loud for Desboutin to ignore, for it is said that upon entering the studio of artist Louis-Jules Etex (1810-1889), Desboutin made up his mind to give up the law of the land and instead study the art that was his calling.
Soon enough he had enrolled in the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and was studying under the eminent academic painter Henry Couture (1815-1879). However, it seems that the strict and rigorous guidance of the hallowed halls of the academy were limiting to Desboutin’s artistic instincts. He dropped out of the academy far sooner than was anticipated, apparently telling a friend about the artistic educators: ‘we must not count on them.’ One must find one’s own instinctive artistic calling, in Desboutin’s mind.
This he did, travelling across Europe to take inspiration from the galleries of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Britain. Eventually his travels took him to Italy, and it was here he would remain for 17 years, settling in Florence.
In the land of the great artistic Renaissance, Desboutin would begin to cultivate and hone his own artistic re-birth. He would write poems and plays, paint numerous works to gift to friends, and, significantly, he would also begin to garner an interest in engraving. He began to surround himself with artistic minds of the likes of Edgar Degas (1834-1917), who would become a very good friend to Desboutin.
This friendship was crucial when Desboutin would return to France following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, which had ruined the performance of a play written by Desboutin and which placed him in financial peril. Degas was able to enfold Desboutin into the artistic circles of Paris, most notably the Café Guerbois.
This is where many of the prominent figures who would lead the rise of impressionism, such as Édouard Manet (1832-1883), met, and would solidify Desboutin’s place amongst these great artists. Indeed, Desboutin, with his rather eccentric personality, fit well into these heady circles of inspired bohemianism. Much beloved, he often appears in works by both Degas and Manet, such as Degas’ 1875 work, L'Absinthe.
This time in Paris was one of great artistic prosperity for Desboutin and confirmed him in many eyes as a ‘master engraver.’ Engraving was going through a period of revitalisation during the late 19th century. Paris in particular fostered in artists the desire to explore the medium, often seen as a lesser vocation compared to painting. Achieved through the scoring of small lines onto a metal plate which is then printed onto paper, engraving is a painstaking, meticulous process.
Desboutin was particularly skilled at this medium. Through his deft and pragmatic hand, he could conjure up images balanced beautifully between ink and paper. His scoring of lines was never so heavy as to make an image seem too dense upon the paper, and his application often left his works with a gorgeous, velvety texture, as was desired.
After the example of his impressionist brothers, Desboutin became curious about capturing the brief moments in life, snapshots of time and place. A woman attends to a baby in a pram, the focused expression on her face captured with dexterity. Desboutin is able to summon shadows to the line of her nose, the creasing of her cheek. A child standing by the pram is similarly rendered, his cheeky expression and bright eyes highlighted by the shadows which swathe him, the dark clothes which drench him.
Portraits of friends and family were also favoured subjects for Desboutin’s engravings. His wife poses with a soft smirk, her face intricately captured. Degas is the subject of numerous engravings, as is fellow engraver Jules Jacquemart (1837-1880), and artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). They are captured in moments of contemplation, perhaps thinking through their next work. Self-portraits offer glimpses into Desboutin’s perception of himself. Oftentimes he looks directly at the viewer, eyes sharp, gaze piercing through the paper. There is the same pensive air he lends to his peers. One gets a sense of his artistic and intellectual spirit.
Desboutin’s engravings demonstrate a remarkable skill. The marks which are recognisable on his prints point to a discerning consideration of where to make impressions upon the metal plate to produce the greatest effect. They also lend to his works an impression of rapidity, of immediacy, which in turn lends itself to the spirit of the impressionists to capture that time, that moment. Desboutin’s works are a masterclass in what was desired of late 19th-century intaglio prints.
Notice should also be made of Desboutin’s paintings. Whilst not as successful as his engravings, they display a cunning hand with modern verve. Friends and Desboutin himself are once again the focus of highly spirited portraits. Each strike of the brush against the canvas is evident, building up strongly characterised images. Whilst his colour palette is of an earthier, darker choice than the impressionists favoured, there is certainly something of their immediacy about his works.
Desboutin exhibited regularly from this time forward up until the years just before his death in 1902. He won numerous accolades for his works, as well as critical praise and public renown. He had cemented himself as a fixture in artistic circles and his eccentricities were met with affection. Indeed, whilst Desboutin lived for a time in Nice on the south coast of France, upon his return to Paris, in 1890 he was called to establish the Second National Society of Fine Arts, so vital was he to the scene.
His contributions to the art world were recognised in 1895 with his appointment to the Order of the Legion of Honour, the highest accolade a Frenchman could receive. Desboutin was hailed as a ‘legendary figure,’ a man who had married technical skill with artistic virtuosity. Indeed, his engravings are elegant examples of the developments in French art during the second half of the 19th century. It seems right, too, that he should be captured forever in the works of his painterly peers, now so greatly praised in the art world. Moments captured are done so forever, and the reputation of this great engraver will not tarnish.
Born in Cérilly, France.
Moved to Florence, Italy.
Moved to Paris, France.
Exhibited at the Second Impressionist Exhibition.
First exhibited at the Salon de Paris.
Awarded a third-class medal from the Salon de Paris.
Moved to Nice, France.
Awarded a silver medal from the Salon de Paris.
Appointed to the Order of the Legion of Honour.
Died in Nice, France.