Artist - Louis Legrand
( Originally Published 1925 )
The etched work of the brilliant Frenchman Louis Legrand is at last beginning to be appreciated in this country. French etchings, unless by painter-etchers, have never been very popular with us. We admire Meryon and Helleu's dry-points, Bracquemond, Jacquemart; Félix Buhot has a following; Lalanne and Daubigny too; but in comparison with the demand for Rembrandt, Whistler, Seymour Haden, or Zorn the Paris men are not in the lead. There is Rops, for example, whose etchings may be compared to Meryon's; yet who except a few amateurs seeks Rops? Louis Legrand is now about forty-five, at the crest of his career, a versatile, spontaneous artist who is equally happy with pigments or the needle. His pastels are much sought, but his dry-points have gained for him celebrity. Though a born colourist, the primary gift of the man is his draughtsmanship. His designs, swift and supple notations of the life around him, delight the eye by reason of their personal touch and because of the intensely human feeling that he infuses into every plate. Legrand was one of the few pupils of Félicien Rops, and technically he has learned much of his master; but his way of viewing men and women and life is different from that of the Belgian genius. He has irony and wit and humour — the two we seldom bracket — and he has pity also, he loves the humble and despised. His portraits of babies, the babies of the people, are captivating. Imagine a Rops who has some of Millet's boundless sympathy for his fellow-humans and you have approximately an understanding of Louis Legrand.
He is a native of Dijon, the city that gave birth to Bossuet, but Legrand is not that kind of Burgundian. Several critics pretend to see in his work the characteristics of his native Côte d'Or; that, however, may be simply a desire to frame the picture appropriately. Legrand might have hailed from the south, from Daudet's country; he is exuberant as he is astute. The chief thing is that he has abundant brains and in sheer craftsmanship fears few equals. Like Whistler, his principal preoccupation is to suppress all appearance of technical procedures. His method of work is said to be simplicity itself; obsessed by his very definite visions, he transfers them to the scratched plate with admirable celerity. Dry-point etching is his principal medium. With his needle he has etched Montmartre, its cabarets, its angels — in very earthly disguise — its orators, poets, and castaways, and its visiting tourists — " God's silly sheep." He has illustrated a volume of Edgar Poe's tales that displays a macabre imagination. His dancers are only second to those of Edgar Degas, and seen from an opposite side. His peasants, mothers, and children, above all, babies, reveal an eye that observes and a brain that can coordinate the results of this piercing vision. Withal, he is a poet who extracts his symbols from everyday life.
This is what Camille Mauclair said of him at the time of his début:
An admirably skilful etcher, a draughtsman of keen vision, and a painter of curious character, who has in many ways forestalled the artists of to-day. Louis Legrand also shows to what extent Manet and Degas have revolutionised the art of illustration, in freeing the painters from obsolete laws and guiding them toward truth and frank psychological study. Legrand is full of them without resembling them. We must not forget that besides the technical innovation [division of tones, study of complementary colours] impression-ism has brought us novelty of composition, realism of character, and great liberty in the choice of subjects. From this point of view Rops himself, in spite of his symbolist tendencies, could not be classed with any other group if it were not that any kind of classification in art is useless and inaccurate. However that may be, Louis Legrand has signed some volumes with the most seductive qualities."
Gustave Kahn, the symbolist poet who was introduced to the English reading world in one of the most eloquent pages of George Moore, thinks that Legrand is frankly a symbolist. We side with Mauclair in not trying to pin this etcher down to any particular formula. He is anything he happens to will at the moment, symbolist, poet, and also shockingly frank at times. Take the plate with a pun for a title, Le paing quotidien ("going" is slang for "poing," a blow from the fist, and may also mean the daily bread). A masculine brute is with clinched fist about to give his unfortunate partner her daily drubbing. He is well dressed. His silk hat is shiny, his mustache curled in the true Adolphe fashion. His face is vile. The woman cries aloud and protects herself with her hands. In Marthe Baraquin, by Rosny senior, you will find the material for this picture, though Legrand found it years ago in the streets. Unpleasant, truly, yet a more potent sermon on man's cruelty to woman than may be found in a dozen preachments, fictions, or the excited outpourings at a feminist congress. Legrand presents the facts of the case without comment, except the irony — such dismal irony! of the title. In this he is the true pupil of Rops.
However, he does not revel long among such dreary slices of life. The Poe illustrations are grotesque and shuddering, but after all make believe. The plate of The Black Cat piles horror on horror's head (literally, for the demon cat perches on the head of the corpse) and is, all said, pictorial melodrama. The Berenice illustration is, we confess, a little too much for the nerves, simply because in a masterly manner Legrand has exposed the most dreadful moment of the story (untold by Poe, who could be an artist in his tact of omission). The dental smile of the cataleptic Berenice as her necrophilic cousin bends over the coffin is a testimony to a needle that in this instance matches Goya's and Rops's in its evocation of the horrific. We turn with relief to the ballet-girl series. The impression gained from this album is that Legrand sympathises with, nay loves, his subject. Degas, the greater and more objective artist, nevertheless allows to sift through his lines an inextinguishable hatred of these girls who labour so long for so little; and Degas did hate them, as he hated all that was ugly in daily life, though he set forth this ugliness, this mediocrity, this hatred in terms of beautiful art. Legrand sees the ugliness, but he also sees the humanity of the balla teuse. She is a woman who is brought up to her profession with malice aforethought by her parents. These parents are usually noted for their cupidity. We need not read the witty history of the Cardinal family to discover this repellent fact. Legrand sketches the dancer from the moment when her mother brings her, a child, to undergo the ordeal of the first lesson.
The tender tot stands hesitating in the doorway; one hand while holding the door open seems to grasp it as the last barrier of defence that stands between her and the strange new world. She is attired in the classical figurante's costume. Be-hind, evidently pushing her forward, is the grim guardian, a bony, forbidding female. Although you do not see them, it is an easy feat to imagine the roomful of girls and dancing master all staring at the newcomer. The expression on the child's face betrays it; instinctively, like the generality of embarrassed little girls, her hand clasps her head. In less than a minute she will weep.
Another plate, L'ami des Danseuses, is charged with humanity. The violinist who plays for the ballet rehearsals sits resting, and facing him are two young dancers, also sitting, but stooping to relieve their strained spines and the tendons of their muscular legs. The old fellow is giving ad-vice from the fulness of a life that has been not too easy. The girls are all attention. It is a genre bit of distinction. Upon the technical virtuosity in which this etcher excels we shall not dwell. Some of his single figures are marvels. The economy of line, the massing of lights and darks, the vitality he infuses into a woman who walks, a man who works in the fields, a child at its mother's breast, are not easily dealt with in a brief study. We prefer to note his more general qualities. His humour, whether in delineating a stupid soldier about to be exploited by camp followers, or in his Animales, is unforced. It can be Rabelaisian and it can be a record of simple animal life, as in the example with the above title. A cow stands on a grassy shore; near by a stolid peasant girl sits slicing bread and eating it. Cow and girl, grass and sky and water are woven into one natural pattern. The humour inheres in several sly touches. It is a comical Millet. Very Millet-like too is the large picture, Beau Soir, in which a field labourer bends over to kiss his wife, who has a child at her breast. A cow nuzzles her apron, the fourth member of this happy group. The Son of the Carpenter is another peasant study, but the trans-position of the Holy Family to our century. A slight nimbus about the mother's head is the only indication that this is not a humble household somewhere in France. Maternal Joy, Mater Inviolata are specimens of a sane, lovely art which celebrate the joys, dolors, and exaltations of motherhood. We prefer this side of the art of Legrand to his studies of sinister jail-birds, hetairai, noctambules, high kickers, and private bars, the horrors of Parisian night life. Whatever he touches he vivifies. His leaping, audacious line is like the narrative prose of a Maupassant or a Joseph Conrad. Every stroke tells.
His symbolical pictures please us least. They doubtless signify no end of profound things, ye to us they seem both exotic and puerile. We go back to the tiny dancers, tired to sleepiness, who sit on a sofa waiting to be called. Poor babies! Or to the plate entitled Douleur. Or to the portraits of sweet English misses — as did Constantin
Guys, Legrand has caught the precise English note — or any of the children pieces. If he knows the psychology of passion, knows the most intimate detail of the daily life of les filles, Legrand is master too of the psychology of child life. This will endear him to English and American lovers of art, though it is only one of his many endowments. His wit keeps him from extremes, though some of his plates are not for puritans; his vivid sympathies prevent him from falling into the sterile eccentricities of so many of his contemporaries; if he is cynical he is by the same taken soft-hearted. His superb handling of his material, with a synthetic vision superadded, sets apart Louis Legrand in a profession which today is filled with farceurs and fakers and with too few artists by the grace of God.