An image of The agony of flowers

Théodore Roussel

(France, England 23 Mar 1847 – 23 Apr 1926)

The agony of flowers

Location
Not on display
Further information

Born in Lorient, Brittany, Roussel gave up a military career after being called to active duty in the Franco-Prussian War. He decided to become an artist and, with this ambition in mind, moved to London in around 1877 where he established himself in Chelsea, painting and exhibiting charming park and street scenes, as well as portraits. In 1885 his paintings came to the attention of Whistler and the two artists became friends. The Australian-born Mortimer Menpes, one of Whistler’s devoted band of followers, recalled in his book, Whistler as I knew him (1904), that Roussel always went bareheaded in the leader’s presence as an act of deference, in response to which Whistler chirped, ‘At last, I have found a follower worthy of the Master’.

In 1887 Whistler persuaded Roussel to take up etching. His early prints, drawn on small copper plates and recording the shopfronts and houses of Chelsea, are essentially Whistlerean imitations – right down to the trimmed margins and projecting paper tab for the signature. However, from the 1890s onwards Roussel gradually revealed himself as a strikingly original printmaker, moving away from Whistlerean subjects and techniques, and immersing himself in the latest developments taking place in Paris, namely in colour etching.

Although in this period the original print was still understood as a black and white medium, isolated trials in colour etching were starting to challenge this idea. Through the 1890s colour etching developed apace, becoming an increasingly important branch of printmaking, among whose exponents were such figures as the Impressionist artists Camille Pissarro and Mary Cassatt.

Colour etching was a more complicated and time- consuming process than traditional etching because the image had to be built up from separate plates for each colour. By comparison with other forms of colour printmaking, most notably lithography (which was flourishing in tandem with the rise of the commercially produced poster), colour etching was perceived as the more elite art form, more likely to appeal to the sensitive connoisseur with its aura of handcrafted individualisation.

Roussel lavished extraordinary attention on his plates. He was intrigued by the vicissitudes of printmaking, which led him to produce countless trial proofs, exploring the changes that could be manifested from one impression to another. The print that had the longest and most complicated gestation was The agony of flowers, a work deeply redolent of fin-de-siècle Symbolism, depicting a bouquet of dying flowers in a Chinese vase, and unquestionably the artist’s masterpiece.

Roussel began work on the plate, his most highly wrought and largest to date, in the early 1890s, giving free rein to his painterly approach by combining the auxiliary processes of softground and aquatint with traditional linear etching. The plate was printed in black and white (see 5.1981), with Roussel obtaining the remarkable depth of shadow through the unusual operation of inking and printing the plate twice. He also experimented with alternative inksand papers, as seen in the Gallery’s impression printed in gold ink on black paper – the only known example of this strikingly beautiful combination (see accession number 264.1982).

Peter Raissis, Prints & drawings Europe 1500–1900, 2014

Year
1890-1895
Media
Print
Medium
etching, softground and aquatint, printed in gold ink on black paper
Dimensions
44.5 x 34.8 cm sheet (irreg.)
Signature & date

Signed l.r., [incised plate] "Theodore Roussel". Not dated.

Credit
Purchased 1982
Accession number
264.1982.1