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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Eugene Grasset

Young Girl in the Garden, Eugene Grasset.
(As with many such design artists, dates are rare and largely uncertain.)
Eugene Grasset, Self-portrait--one of
his few works not done in Art Nouveau.
My mother always had a fondness for antique jewelry (actually, any kind of jewelry). My wife does too, especially that from the early 20th century, sometimes referred to as Fin de Siecle. That pretty much means jewelry based upon Art Nouveau designs, which heavily dominated female tastes of that era. I, myself, have never cared much for such fancy foolishness, but that's just me. I much prefer the more sleekly modern, more masculine ideals of the Art Deco period which followed it. If you like organic and plant motifs, idealized, lightly attired young ladies, and overly curvilinear font styles, you'd like with Art Nouveau. Moreover, it wasn't just those of the feminine gender at the time who took a liking to the style. Actually it was invented by men and, for the most part, promoted by them. One of them was the Swiss-French artist, Eugene Grasset, sometimes referred to as "The Father of Art Nouveau."

Art Nouveau was a style cutting across nearly all the visual arts at the turn of the 20th century, especially architecture as seen here in examples from the Baltic city or Riga.
A brooch by Grasset,
typical of Art Nouveau. 
Grasset was born in 1845 in Lausanne, Switzerland, the son of a cabinet maker and sculptor. As is quite often the case, his childhood was what we might term "art-rich." Even today, art in the home at an early ages is a huge plus for any would-be artist. He studied art locally as a teen then moved on to Zurich intent on a career as an architect. When he graduated, his family likely could not afford the traditional "grand tour," but Grasset was afforded a trip to Egypt that was to have a profound effect on his art over the rest of his life. About this same time he picked up a liking for Japanese prints. Upon returning home, Grasset began working in the area of furniture and fabric design, also adding to his portfolio jewelry, stained glass, tapestries, painting, and sculpture (everything, it would seem, except architecture). In fact, just about anything having to do with art, especially the decorative arts, he did and did well. It was a time, particularly in the relative backwaters of the Swiss art world, when an artist, to earn a living, virtually had to be versatile.

Product advertisements led to posters, which led to art prints, which led to fame and fortune.
Grasset designed (and named after himself)
a type font lending itself to Art Nouveau.
All of these factors came together to form Art Nouveau, even before there was a quite inadequate term for it. Art Nouveau translates simply to "new art" which was something of a defacto designation for a half-dozen or so European versions of similar organic motifs. Grasset seems to have "felt" his way into Art Nouveau as he began producing commercial artwork (which often took the form of posters) around 1877 when printing techniques began allowing for mass production and distribution. His Grasset Italic typeface (right) is from this period. Working from Paris, the art capital of the world at the time, publishers there and in the U.S. discovered his work and the money to be made in selling it in poster form (then, as now, a very economical way to cover the cracks in the plaster).

St .Etienne Briare, France, 1895, Eugene Grasset
A hallway door window by Grasset.
Besides wall art, Art Nouveau lends itself to stained glass quite well--just ask Louis Comfort Tiffany. In Paris, Grasset lent himself to stained glass as seen in his rose window designed for St. Etienne, Briare, France, in 1895 (above). During the so-called Belle Époque of the late 19th century, stained glass spread from the lofty heights of churches to the lofty heights of upper-class homes, as seen in the tessellating design for a hallway door designed by Grasset (left). I did a little stained glass in college; this thing must have been a nightmare to cut and assemble. Stained glass was not particularly lucrative. The money was in publishing as Grasset turned more and more to illustration, as seen in his Harpers Magazine Christmas cover (below, right) and his print depicting the Laying the Foundations of the Eiffel Tower from 1887 (below).

Laying the Foundations of the Eiffel Tower, 1887, Eugene Grasset
Harper's Magazine,
Christmas, 1892, Eugene Grasset
It would be easy to dismiss Grasset simply as a period artist intent upon creating pretty pictures and milking the art style he mostly fathered for all the coins it could produce. Yet there also creeps into the content of some of Grasset's posters some very un-pretty "modern" social ills of his time. Although artists had long depicted the desperation of alcohol abuse (and the occasional absinthe drinker) Grasset's A Drug Addict Injecting Herself (below) dates from the early 20th-century, a time when the use of hard drugs was not deemed a suitable subject for art. Despite being a stylized poster rather flat in design and execution, it is all the more powerful because of Grasset's painfully harsh rendering. One has to wonder in what quarter he found a market for such a grossly decadent depiction. It's about as far removed from his lovely, red-headed, Christmas angel with the weirdly deformed trumpet (right) as can be imagined.

A Drug Addict Injecting Herself, early 20th century, Eugene Grasset


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