28 March 2013
The Van Gogh Museum has acquired two colour woodcuts by Auguste Lepère and Henri Guérard.
It concerns the works Le Palais de Justice, vu du Pont Notre-Dame (1889) by Auguste Lepère (1849-1918) and Effet de neige (1890-1892) by Henri Guérard (1846-1897). In Paris at the fin de siècle, printmaking was all the rage. Nearly all the French artists of that time were experimenting with lithography, etching or woodcuts as a means of artistic expression, resulting in high-quality artworks. The Van Gogh Museum has a collection of about 1,500 prints dating from this period. The newly purchased works show an aspect that, until recently, was less represented this in collection: the colour woodcut. Lepère and Guérard, of which other prints in different techniques are already in the collection of the museum, are among the most important fin de siècle representatives of this art form.
Colour woodcut revival
At the end of the 19th century colour woodcuts experienced a revival in France, influenced in part by Japanese printmaking. With their unusual perspectives, bright colour blocks, strong contours and silhouettes, Japanese woodcuts provided an inexhaustible source of inspiration for many western artists seeking a modern style, including Vincent van Gogh. Together with his brother Theo he collected around 500 Japanese prints, saved by the Van Gogh Museum. Van Gogh used Japanese style elements in his paintings and drawings, while some artists experimented with Japanese woodcut techniques, like Lepère and Guérard. This print by Lepère is one of the first examples of this. Lepère’s colour woodcuts encouraged other artists, including Guérard, to experiment with this technique too.
Lepère followed the Japanese process to create Le Palais de Justice. He started by carving out the image in the plank side of soft fruit wood and printed it by hand onto thin Japanese paper. For each colour he used a separate woodblock. By using water-based ink just like the Japanese, Lepère produced transparent colours which convincingly display the rainy atmosphere and falling dusk. He suggested the low backlight by portraying the figures, the tree and the traffic on the bridge in the distance as silhouettes, a typical Japanese style element. The artist only printed six copies using the Japanese method, one of which is the print purchased for the collection. Lepère dedicated this work to his good friend Guérard. Like Lepère, Guérard was a great admirer of Japanese art and, encouraged partly by Lepère’s experiments, also showed a keen interest in creating his own colour woodcuts.
Guérard’s Effet de neige also reflects many Japanese elements, such as the use of large spaces of colour, but compared with Lepère’s work, Guérard’s print is flatter and more modern in character. Like many Japanese print makers, however, both artists chose a contemporary subject prominently featuring the weather: a rainy Parisian street scene and a snowy industrial landscape.