This blog post is the first in a series related to A Curious Hand: The Prints of Henri-Charles Guérard (1846-1897), an upcoming exhibition at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.
The late nineteenth-century art critic Roger Marx’s (1859-1913) encomium to Henri Guérard, written on the occasion of the artist’s premature death in 1897 at age 51 offers evidence of the high esteem in which contemporaries held the artist. Published in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1897, the article exalts Guérard as “the engraver of curiosity par excellence.” As intriguing as it is elusive, the description is hard to make head or tail of: what does curiosity mean in this context and how can an artist be an engraver of it?
Originating in the Latin curiositas, curiosity today connotes a desire for knowledge and a general inquisitiveness. The Oxford English Dictionary reveals, however, the term to be considerably more nuanced and multivalent. As a personal attribute, for example, the word denotes carefulness, a fastidious attention to detail, proficiency attained by assiduous application, the excessive attention bestowed upon matters of inferior moment, and the quality of a curioso or virtuoso. As a quality of things, the term also signifies meticulous workmanship or any object valued as curious, rare, or strange. Thinking about Marx’s text in light of the word’s other assorted meanings lets us make sense of Marx’s assertion and broadens our understanding of what Guérard’s peers took to be his real contribution to the history of art.
Consider for a moment the context for Marx’s statement, which reads: “For sure, his taste for bibelots and the fact that he was a collector helped Guérard achieve ‘a feeling for different styles’ and to become with Jules Jacquemart the engraver of curiosity par excellence of the nineteenth-century.” According to Marx, it was Guérard’s love of bibelots – the French term for knick-knacks, from the old French beubelet meaning a trinket or jewel—and his habits as a collector which gave rise to his talents as “the engraver of curiosity.” From what we learn from Roger Lesclide’s visit to the artist’s studio in 1874, described in detail in an article published in Paris à l’eau forte, Guérard was indeed in love with all manner of objets and trifling tchotchkes.
Not only did he collect fine prints by Rembrandt van Rijn, but also works of little to no value, including tattered books that were falling apart and that the artist claimed were as good to read as they were to look at. His chief passion, though, was vintage lanterns.
When one of the lanterns fell by accident on Lesclide’s head, Guérard remarked that he didn’t like collecting rare majolica and other precious works that had a habit of breaking. His lanterns, he claimed, represented a little world for him, stating that each one evoked either an epoch or a particular type. His assertion jibes with Marx’s statement that Guérard’s collecting practices had sensitized him to a range of artistic styles and objects. The artist’s capacity to accommodate his hand to the object he was copying—such that he was as capable of faithfully reproducing etchings by Rembrandt as he was sixteenth-century red velvet book bindings—embodies an act of curiosity. He applied himself to the work, sublimating his own style in favor of rendering them with the character appropriate to each.
For Guérard it was not enough, however, to just be a collector of lanterns and other odds and ends. He also composed droll verses to some of them, as is the case in the Lanterne D’Avare, which reads:
Petit bijou de forme exquise, Little jewel of exquisite formSors-tu des mains d’une marquise, Do you issue from the hands of a MarquiseEt ton verre blanc, enchassé And your white glass, mountedDans un cadre en ferre repoussé, in a casing of chased iron
Guida-t-il la marche craintive Did it guide the timid steps D’une mule hardie et furtive of a lady’s slipper audacious and stealthyS’eliognant d’un pas inégal as she stole away, with an irregular gaitDu sanctuaire conjugal ?... from the conjugual sanctuary?...
Ta svelte et précise élégance Your trim and precise eleganceDate au moins de la Renaissance dates at least to the Renaissance Le cuivre, appliqué finement, the copper, delicately appliedCourt sur ta frise en ornement… Runs along your border as an ornament…
The poem not only describes the lantern’s jewel-like beauty, but also imagines it as the valued possession of a French marchioness, who uses it to light her way from the marital bed. By attributing antiquity to a lantern and investing it with the sort of private knowledge that is only gleaned through personal access or exchanged confidences, Guérard arouses our interest and confirms its eminence as an object of curiosity.
His collection’s curiosité is corroborated by the creative consideration he lavished on it. Guérard did not just collect oddments and write witty poems about them, he drew and etched them, he paid excessive attention to them from an artistic point of view also. Referred to by the word curios, a term whose first usage dates to around 1873 and whose meaning derives from the word curiosity, bibelots are expressions of Guérard’s own imagination. When Guérard etched his and other people’s gewgaws, he turned his collector’s imagination to the task of vigilantly rendering those features that made them curious. He performed this task with concentration and attention to detail and with the skills he had attained by his own painstaking application to the art of printmaking, traits that begin to explain Marx’s succinct summation of him as “the engraver of curiosity.”