March 04, 2012

Looking at Laboureur

One of the most under-appreciated artists of the early 20th Century has always been, in my opinion, the French print maker Jean-Emile Laboureur. 

"Self Portrait", 1928
Born in Nantes in 1877, Laboureur found his professional calling at an early age, thanks in large part, to an acquaintanceship with Henri Toulouse-Lautrec who encouraged him to give up formal study and pursue his dream of being an artist.  He traveled through Europe visiting print rooms in museums and galleries while learning the print making techniques of wood block, etching and engraving.  In 1903, Laboureur expanded his horizons even farther and voyaged across the ocean to take up residence in New York City and later Pittsburgh, PA.  The energy and excitement of these burgeoning industrial cities were infectious and he recorded his observances of people and places in beautiful and poignant prints.

Laboureur's return to France in 1909 coincided with the emergence of Cubism, a movement he embraced with great enthusiasm.  Never overly intellectual, his images maintain an airy, natural quality made even more powerful by the stripped down simplicity of the Cubist line executed in etchings and woodblocks.  He recorded his experiences as an interpreter with the British Army during World War I by returning to his roots and the ease of literally "sketching" an image with a burin on discarded metal ammunition cases to create an engraving.  He was a devoted graphic artist - determined to create with or without a studio or equipment!

"Garçon au restaurant"
With the return of peace time, Laboureur shifted his attention from capturing vignettes and portrayals to the esteemed French tradition of book illustration - the livre d'artiste - a specialty he excelled in eventually leaving a body of work comprising over fifty titles.  He also traded bachelorhood for marriage, settling down at the age of 42 with his beloved Suzanne and they enjoyed a happy family life with two children living and working in Brittany.  Sadly, in 1939 Jean-Emile Laboureur contracted a disease that left him paralyzed and he spent his last few years unable to pursue his art and he died in 1943.

Despite professional accolades and reasonable success during his lifetime Laboureur never really achieved what his followers thought he deserved.  Certainly his prints and books are coveted by a very specialized group of collectors but it always surprised me that his works, full of charm and wit, seemed rather under valued.  However all this started to change last October with the auction in Paris of the Estate of his son, Sylvain.  Devoted to preserving the legacy of his father, Sylvain Laboureur had compiled a three-volume catalogue raisonnĂ© listing individual prints, livres d'artiste and paintings, drawings and watercolors.  With his passing, the family's private collection of works was put up for sale and the results were astounding.

I was fortunate to be able to preview and attend that auction and I was overwhelmed with the plethora of marvelous esoteric lots for sale.  I had high hopes of acquiring a special example of a print accompanied by a preparatory drawing and maybe even the copper plate on which it was etched.  It became clear very quickly that despite relatively low estimates there were no bargains to be had and I sat in the audience as lot after lot was sold for prices that precluded me from even raising my paddle to bid.

"Chez la floriste", 1920
This Thursday I have a second chance as Swann Galleries here in Manhattan is offering a single-owner sale of prints, drawings and illustrated books by Jean-Emile Laboureur.  The collector remains anonymous but obviously had a passion for these works as he or she assembled a large and diverse group of exceptional examples.  I previewed the auction yesterday and will attend the sale again with hopes of picking up a special print or two to add to my own small collection.  Whether or not I succeed, it is a great pleasure to see such a comprehensive ensemble on public view and very satisfying to see this long overlooked artist finally getting his due.


Anonymous said...

So, did you buy any Laboureur pieces in the auction?

Georgina Kelman said...

Unfortunately the pieces I was interested in were quite popular and the prices went pretty high. Thanks for asking! Georgina