Felix Buhot was never finished. And almost forgotten.
The French peintre-graveur, or painter- printmaker -- who died at age 51 in 1898, after years of paralyzing depression and self- doubt -- is remembered this month in the Baltimore Museum of Art's "Felix Buhot: Peintre-Graveur." It's an exhibition of 65 prints, many from the museum's George A. Lucas Collection, and some 40 paintings and drawings borrowed from collections in France and elsewhere. This retrospective, the first since Buhot's initial retrospective exhibition in New York City 95 years ago, makes it clearer than ever:
Felix Buhot was never finished. And worth remembering.
Buhot's livelihood was printmaking, both reproductive etching and original works. He came to it in 1870s France -- about the time that etching had succeeded engraving as a "respectable" artistic means of printmaking, and when photoengraving, with which Buhot also toyed, was in its infancy. Buhot's ideal, however, was painting -- a highly personal, fitfully realized amalgam of the Romantic and the Real, reflecting Buhot's obsession with the effects of light and weather (partly to mostly cloudy, primarily) and lingering adolescent impressions of his native Valognes, a picturesquely decaying coastal village.
The friction between the two media -- painting supposedly pure, printmaking tainted by commercialism -- produced two major results in Buhot's relatively short career: some evocative oils, most of them distinctive seascapes such as "Moonrise Over Saint-Malo" (1887), and a slew of what Buhot is best known for: intricate, many- lived prints.
Buhot's prints, it seems, were never finished. Either the copper plates themselves (two are displayed here) underwent changes after an initial impression or two -- or 13 -- were pulled and sold, or the prints were subsequently drawn over, colored, scratched or added to in some way, usually in Buhot's quest to evoke "atmosphere" in all senses of the word. Buhot was an experimenter, as interested in the technical means of etching as its ends; consequently many of his works-in- progress became works of art in themselves -- both in his view and in the view of his collectors, many of whom could be found in the United States.
His stormy, sweet "Landing in England" (1879), which Buhot considered his most characteristic print, is shown here in two incarnations; his choice of paper and selective inking account for the difference. ("Landing" is also characteristic of Buhot's trademark "symphonic" margins -- wherein he supplemented the main work with smaller, related drawings or etchings, some even printed from separate plates.) His gentle, pen-and-watercolor sketch "A Street in Valognes" turns up again in several prints, and was the basis for his "Christmas Eve" and "Night Prowlers" etchings.
While you're in search of Buhot at the Baltimore Museum of Art -- and it may help to visit the museum's educational display downstairs to see how etching and printmaking was and is actually done -- stop also in the room next door, which contains a sampling of other 19th-century French watercolors from the Lucas collection. Here, among undeniably rosier works by such of Buhot's peers as Jules Jacquemart, Paul Besnard and Honor,e Daumier, you get a better idea of what Buhot -- a painter at heart, with etching needle, nitric acid and black ink in hand -- was up against. FELIX BUHOT: PEINTRE-GRAVEUR -- through August 28 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive (off North Charles Street near 29th), Baltimore. 301/396-6310.