Louis Legrand  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
French erotica

Louis Auguste Mathieu Legrand (18631951) was a French artist. His works are varieties of etchings, graphic art and paintings. His paintings featured the Parisian social life. Many were of prostitutes, dancers and bar scenes, which featured a sense of eroticism. His black and white etchings especially provide a sense of decadence. He is perhaps best-known for his caricature of Emile Zola.


Born at Dijon, he was employed as a bank clerk until he was twenty, though his desire to become an artist was such that he studied at the Dijon Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the evenings and in his spare time. In 1883 he won the Devosge Prize at the school, and left for Paris the following year.

Soon after his arrival in Paris Legrand began to study etching and engraving techniques with Felicien Rops. His first commission in 1884 was a set of four etchings for a series of volumes called Les Premieres Illustrees, to which Steinlen and Willette later also contributed. The following year he executed eight etchings for a novel by Joseph Gayda, Ce Brigand d’Amour, from the same publisher, E. Monnier. Clumsy and amateurish, these show little promise of what was to come. They were, however, the start of a long apprenticeship for Legrand. In the difficult years that followed he supplied a few drawings to such periodicals as La Journee and the Journal Amusant, but he lived mostly on the revenue from drawings he executed for children’s pulp magazines. In 1887 he joined the Courrier Francais alongside Forain, Willette, Henri Pille and Heidbrink, contributing a drawing to each weekly issue over the following five years. The publication expected cynical humor with erotic overtones. Legrand’s drawings were rarely funny. Instead of supplying straightforward cartoons he supplied powerful drawings with strong, harsh lines emphasizing the death and disease that awaited the prostitute and her client, rather than the fun and games. These drawings already showed Legrand’s preoccupation: Rops pointed out that Legrand had “un amour extraordinaire du modele” (an extraordinary love for the sculptured) and in another remark said, “What a man, that Legrand, he would find angles in a billiard ball.”

Prostitutes, errand girls, peasants, and even political comment poured from Legrand’s pen. Two drawings brought him trouble. One called Prostitution, was a mildly Ropsian bit of Symbolism showing a rather silly nude girl in the clutch of a black monster with an old woman’s face and clawed paws. The other was an equally mild satire on the naturalism of Emile Zola, showing the novelist myopically examining a woman’s thighs. Taken to court for obscenity, Legrand was defended by Eugene Rodrigues, a fine lawyer, friend and later biographer of Rops. He was acquitted, but the public prosecutor appealed and, despite Rodrigues’ eloquence, Legrand was found guilty. Refusing to pay the fine, he was briefly incarcerated in the Sainte-Pelagie gaol. This spell in gaol convinced Legrand that the life of a satirical journalist was not for him. Though he lived in Montmartre he, like Steinlen, lived a bourgeois existence, enjoying the wit and humor of the Chat Noir without plunging into the debauched amusements that Toulouse-Lautrec and Bottini found so amusing.

Rodrigues, who wrote articles and chronicles under the pseudonym Erastene Ramiro, had written a commentary on the cancan and its principal exponents, as well as details on the hard training those dancers had to undergo. The Gil Blas magazine published an illustrated supplement, the Gil Blas Illustre from May 1891 onwards, devoting its first two issues to the Rodrigues text with illustrations in color by Legrand. An unprecedented 60,000 copies were printed and sold out immediately. Legrand’s fame began to spread. The Gil Blas illustrations had been reproductions of watercolors. The publisher Dentu persuaded Legrand to etch these compositions, and these were issued the following year in a book called Le Cours de Danse Fin de Siecle (Turn of the Century Dance Classes) with a revised text by Ramiro.

Legrand had, in the meantime, gone to Brittany for a holiday, which was to signal the break with his Courrier Francais past. The last link was a set of seventeen etchings of subjects he had earlier drawn for the magazine. On his return he executed fourteen lithographs inspired by Brittany: fisher folk, peasants, market day. The set, called Au Cap de la Chevre (At the Goat’s Promontory) was published by Gustave Pellet.

Pellet was to be Legrand’s friend and publisher for the rest of his life. Born in 1859, Pellet came from a wealthy family, and spent his youth and young manhood in travel and pursuing his hobby of accumulating a fine library. A financial crash in 1886 destroyed his family fortunes. Faced with the necessity of earning a living he opened a bookshop on the quai Voltaire and began dispersing his collection. He soon decided to diversify into pictures and graphics, and determined to publish original prints. His first artist was Louis Legrand, of whom he was to publish some three hundred etchings. He was also to publish Alexandre Lunois, Charles Maurin, Raffaelli and some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s most beautiful color lithographs, as well as many lithographs and etchings by Odilon Redon, Signac and Luce. When Rops sold the reproduction rights of his graphics shortly before his death, Pellet bought those rights and eventually published some four hundred Rops etchings, many of them engraved by Bertrand. Though highly successful as a publisher, Pellet was also a collector, and Legrand his favorite. It was said that the only place to see Legrand’s pastels was in Pellet’s home, for the publisher could not bear to part with them, and bought nearly all for himself.

Legrand was principally a graphic artist, though he also painted, exhibiting paintings at the Salon of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts from 1902 onwards. After his Breton lithographs he hardly ever returned to the medium. His favorite was the aquatint, in monochrome or in color, which gave him all the flexibility he needed, with touches of etching, drypoint, roulette and burnishing to obtain luminous highlights and astonishing effects.

Many of Legrand’s subjects are taken from Parisian nightlife, the bars, whorehouses, music halls, but he also reveals a strange mystical streak, which made him engrave a series of religious subjects. A large figure of Christ bore his own features, while a composition called Le Fils du Charpentier (The Carpenter’s Son) showed his wife and son. Indeed, his wife and son were the models for many plates. The Livre d’Heures (Book of Hours) published by Pellet in 1898, was a compilation of prayers, songs of devotion, curious medieval texts, etching and two hundred drawings, which went from the conventionally devout to Ropsian demonology and to some very amusing illustrations. Several contemporary critics saw in him a Burgundian Primitive but his technique and sureness is far too sophisticated for that. He undoubtedly had a certain innocence of vision which occasionally dropped him on the wrong side of sentimentality, but that is largely because we are more cynical than his contemporaries.

After completing his series on the cancan Legrand turned to the world of ballet. He spent a great deal of time in the wings and in the rehearsal rooms over a number of years, producing a number of individual aquatints, drawings and pastels as well as two major albums. The first was Les Petites du Ballet (The Little Ones of Ballet), thirteen aquatints and a cover published in 1893. These showed the evolution of the would-be ballerinas, from timid arrival for the first lesson accompanied by a black clad mother; through familiarity, companionship and hard exercise; to putting on and taking off their tutus and an appearance in a scene from an imaginary ballet. The second album appeared in 1908. La Petite Classe consisted of twelve large plates and a cover, dealing this time with the actual performers, from the very young girl wiser in her ways of stage-door johnnies than her years, to the rehearsal rooms, the girls unwinding before a performance, flirting, going to class, becoming a prima ballerina and, at last, making an entrance on stage. Legrand’s ballet plates form a delicious body of work, in which the girls, however tired or tense, are never ungraceful whether sitting, standing, dressing, or at their exercises. Curiously enough Legrand never drew an actual performance. As with the cancan, it was the effort behind the performance that appealed to him.

Legrand’s first major one-man show comprising two hundred works was held in 1896 at Samuel Bing’s L’Art Nouveau gallery. Bing had been one of the leading dealers in Far Eastern works of art before transforming his gallery into one dealing in every aspect of fine and decorative arts in the style to which he gave the name. That same year Floury published a catalogue raisonne of Legrand’s work to date, one hundred twelve original etchings, aquatints and lithographs. It had been compiled and written by Romiro, and Legrand had etched six new etchings for it, including a self-portrait for the cover, which he dedicated “to Eug. Rodrigues, my best friend”.

At the 1900 Universal Exhibition in Paris, Legrand was awarded a Silver Medal. In 1904 a second important one-man show was held at the Galerie Georges Petit, where he exhibited sixteen paintings, twenty-eight pastels, sixty drawings, seven leather bindings, some miniatures and forty-nine etchings. Two years later he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur. In 1911 came a major retrospective exhibition, when his complete graphic works were shown at the Palais des Modes, while paintings, pastels and drawings were exhibited at the Durand-Ruel Gallery. Throughout this part of his career a vast number of articles were published praising his work from the pens of Roger Marx, Louis Morin, Clement-Janin, Michel Zevaco, Gustave Coquiot, Gabriel Mourey, Camille Mauclair and any others. The magazine L’Art et le Beau (Art and Beauty) devoted a complete issue to him in 1908, written by Gustave Kahn, which also appeared in a German edition published by Otto Beckmann Verlag in Berlin. Two years later Mauclair published a two hundred seventy-four page monograph on Legrand, which included a summary list of his graphic work to date.

Legrand continued to produce a number of books, though he only twice illustrated in the conventional sense: Cinq Contes Parisiens (Five Parisian Tales) by Guy de Maupassant in 1905 and Quinze Histoires d’Edgar Poe (Fifteen Stories by Edgar Poe) in 1897, the former commissioned by the Societe des Cent Bibliophiles, of which Rodrigues was a founder and the president. In 1901 Pellet published La Faune Parisienne (Parisian Fauna), a set of twenty etchings and aquatints, mostly in color, with a text by Ramiro. In 1904 he produced twenty-six etching to illustrate some short stories by Hughes Rebell, but these were never published. In 1909 Pellet issued a new album of eight etchings and a cover under the title Les Bars, in which Legrand returned to the scenes of dissipation. In 1914 Pellet published Poems a L’Eau Forte (Etched Poems), for which Legrand produced thirty etchings and aquatints to accompany some of his favorite poems.

The years that followed the war of 1914-1918 saw Legrand withdraw into his family. His old friend and publisher Pellet died in 1919, leaving his gallery to his son-in-law, Maurice Exsteens. Though the latter continued to exhibit Legrand’s work, there was a gap of years between the two men. Exsteens was to write and published a four-volume catalogue of the works of Rops. His catalogue of the works of Legrand was never finished or published. Legrand continued to etch and draw, occasionally sending some paintings to the Salons of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Though he had published drawings and etchings of the Moulin Rouge, of the cancan and of the girls of Montmartre before Lautrec, the latter’s romantically brief and turbulent life had created a legend around his splendid works: even Legrand’s admirers frequently ignored the fact that he was a precursor, not a follower of Lautrec’s. Pierre Varenne, writing in 1922, exclaimed: Life is the admirable Louis Legrand, one of the most moving artists of our time. One does not, perhaps, realize this enough. Since Toulouse-Lautrec no other painter has more faithfully described woman’s complex soul...What mastery and tact!”

Legrand supplied a few etchings for a couple of books in the 1920s, but his last major undertaking was a series of forty-six etchings, aquatints and drawings to accompany a text in prose and verse entitled Elles describing various girls, which Francis Carco had written especially for the purpose. The book was published in 1931 by another friend, Henri Prost.

The Depression was, however, taking its toll. The day of the limited edition book was over for many years. Legrand retired to the country, still occasionally producing some etchings, often of old friends. One of these unfinished etchings includes a caricature of Hitler, Joan of Arc, and an archbishop. He survived the Second World War, and died at Livry-Gargan in 1951 in total obscurity.


Victor Arwas. Belle Époque: posters & graphics, New York, 1978.

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