Posterity has been unkind to Felix-Hilaire Buhot (1847-98), whose etchings are on view in "The Prints of Felix Buhot: Impressions of City and Sea" at the National Gallery of Art. This doesn't seem quite fair. You've probably never heard of him, though he worked so hard, and dared so much, and did his best to please. Poor Buhot! He gave his art his all only to discover that his all was not enough.
Buhot had an open mind, a gentle heart as well, and the most exquisite skills. His late-19th-century Paris had the best chefs on the planet, and the most accomplished artists, and Buhot, as a craftsman, surely ranks among them. His pictures at the gallery are just about as fine as fine French etchings get.
He could fill the air with fog. With his acid-bitten copper plates, his inky rags, his printing press, his moistened sheets of paper, those unwieldy materials, he could catch the way the gaslight lit the rain-slicked Paris streets. By the way he wiped his plates he could somehow make you see the lightening of the sky in the moments before dawn. And all of this fastidious work he did with startling freedom. Look closely at his surfaces -- the wildness released, the discipline maintained, the dazzling pyrotechnics -- it's like hearing Jimi Hendrix. To etchers he's a hero, and it's easy to see why. But elsewhere in the art world, to say nothing of beyond it, he's scarcely known at all.
What has held him back? It can't have been his images, for Buhot's pictures show us what we love to see. His etchings take the viewer to the France of the impressionists. We see steam-wreathed locomotives beneath the glass-paned roof of the Gare Saint-Lazare. We walk the beach at Trouville, where stylish long-gowned women with parasols and poodles gaze at the gray, cold sea. In much of Buhot's art, modernity's upon us and everything's in flux, the Paris crowds, the rushing skies, the accepted rules of art. Paris in the snow, the dance halls of Montmartre -- the public laps this up.
We also value skill, and Buhot, it's pretty obvious, was a wizard of an etcher. While printmakers of lesser skill inked their plates with rollers, Buhot used his fingers and his rags, and moved ink with such freedom that no two of his impressions are entirely alike. His textures are remarkable. Some of these he fashioned by blocking out the acid's bite with scattered grains of resin, some as fine as talc, some as coarse as salt.
He also searched the shops of Paris for sheets of antique paper. Sometimes he'd soak his sheets in turpentine, an ink-dissolving solvent that gave the printed image a soft, uncanny sense of moisture in the air.
Yet somehow this is not enough. Other factors worked against him. Buhot was no Rembrandt, his soul was not gigantic. Nor did he have the cockiness, or the single-mindedness, of, say, James McNeill Whistler, from whom he learned so much. Buhot was too accommodating. He made many-minded art.
Should his etchings be traditional or dazzlingly modern? He couldn't quite decide. Should he give us truth or fiction? Again, he was not sure. Often he declares himself a just-the-facts reporter. But then he conjures ghosts, immaterial beings floating in the air.
Buhot was born in Normandy, and he spent his life returning to the gray mists and the rain. At times he seems a luminist (in 1889, he called his studies of the atmosphere "the only things that interest me"), but he flirted with cartooning, too. He sometimes neared abstraction -- his "Marine: Souvenir of Medway" (1879) suggests Cezanne's fractured space -- but always he pulled back. One feels sorry for the artist. His show in the West Building, carefully selected by curator Greg Jecman, has an unexpected poignancy. Buhot never threatens. He always strives to please.
But his timing worked against him. The demanding art of etching, by the time that Buhot mastered it, was sliding out of fashion. The new vogue was for lithographs, big and brightly colored ones. Buhot's little etchings were scaled to the page while the quick, eye-grabbing lithographs of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were scaled to the street. Buhot could not compete.
The camera worked against him, too. Photography is fast. It's a medium for a speedy world. But the etchings of Buhot were slow to make, and slow to see.
Most were built on glimpses, on immediate impressions. But Buhot wouldn't stop there. He kept on adding on. He often did so in his margins -- patiently surrounding the central image of his pictures with small unfolding narratives, little footnotes for the eye.
His "Westminster Palace" (1884) is a postcard view of London, a glimpse across the Thames of that grand building. But then he tries to show us, in his illustrated margins, all that structure means -- the rule of law (a judge's wig), the monarchy as well (a mourning Queen Victoria), the Battle of Trafalgar and a whole lot more besides.
"Winter in Paris (Paris in the Snow)," an exceptionally fine etching of 1879, comes with marginal subplots, too. We see a cab-horse shivering. Then we see it stumble. At last we see it dead, abandoned on the street, half-covered with fresh snow. We see the hungry dogs as well, battling for scraps, and skaters on the Seine, and an unexpected glimpse of Parisian feet and ankles (some in leather boots, some in workmen's wooden clogs, some in stylish ladies' shoes) striding through the slush.
The spirit of the piece -- with its drama and its sudden cuts and its shifting points of view -- is almost cinematic, as Buhot has glimpsed the future. Yet the way that he evokes Rembrandt's winter landscapes, and Bruegel's skating peasants, shows us at the same time that he's fastened to the past.
No wonder he felt thwarted. In 1892, abandoning his press, his costly inks and solvents, his gleaming steel tools and rare imported papers, he gave up printmaking entirely. Then he slid into depression. Six years later he was dead.
The Prints of Felix Buhot: Impressions of City and Sea, in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue NW, through Feb. 20. The museum is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., and admission is free. For information call 202-737-4215. Many of the finest among the 68 pictures are promised gifts or loans from Helena Gunnarsson, a Washington collector who has proved herself to be one of the French etcher's most devoted champions.