French drawings at the Getty Center
Vast Pasture with a Distant Town, 1850s-60s, Maxime Lalanne, charcoal with stumping, scratching, and lifting on laid paper. Courtesy of a private collection

At the height of the Industrial Revolution in the mid 19th century, artists in France began depicting shadowy, often nocturnal or twilight scenes in which forms appear to emerge and sink back into the darkness. They also explored the depths of blackness in its various imaginative associations, such as dream states and non-idealised representations of contemporary life.

At that same time, these artists exploited the newly available tonal drawing materials such as charcoal, fabricated black chalk, and conte crayon.  These new materials, along with improvements in working methods, gave rise to a graphic exploration of darkness.

French drawings at The Getty
Head of Sleeping Bacchante, 1847, Gustave Courbet, fabricated black chalk with stumping, lifting, and scratching on laid paper. The J. Paul Getty Museum

The Getty is currently showing the exhibition “Noir: The Romance of Black in 19th Century French Drawings and Prints,” on view through May 15, 2016, which examines how artists championed these new, dark subjects. On view are drawings and prints from Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas, Henri Fantin Latour, Edouard Manet, Odilon Redon, Georges Seurat, and others.

Many artists reacted to the brutal realities of the Industrial Revolution and political repression by retreating into the interior, unfettered world of the psyche. Black was associated with nocturnal, phantasmagoric dreams and the dark expanse of the cosmos. “The meanings and significance of the colour black played a large role as artists searched for a new world of subject matter,” says Lee Hendrix, Senior Curator of Drawings and curator of the exhibition. “These developments had strong beginnings in the art of Romanticism, when artists looked at the darkest recesses of the human condition. The uninhibited artistic investigation of evil, cruelty, and death gave rise to dark imagery of unprecedented power.”

French drawings at The Getty
Mephistopheles Aloft, 1827, published 1828, Eugène Delacroix, lithograph on wove paper. Courtesy of and © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts

French artists made black prints and drawings with increasing interest in the properties and effects of their materials. These artists– called “Fusainistes” (fusain means charcoal in French)– used charcoal and black chalk to portray the rustic nature of rural existence, and the somber reality of urban life. The Fusainistes recognised that charcoal, with its powdery and floating qualities was also the perfect medium to portray dreams and landscape scenes. By the late 1800s, artists turned to conte crayon as well, with which one could produce a wide range of effects from fine light lines to dense opaque shading. As stated by the artist Odilon Redon, “ Black is the most essential colour.”

French drawings at The Getty
Actresses in their Dressing Rooms, 1879-80, Edgar Degas, etching and aquatint on wove paper. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. John C. Best, Dr. and Mrs. Donovan Byer, Mr. and Mrs. Billy Wilder, the Garrett Co

The works in this brilliantly presented exhibition are drawn from the museum’s permanent collection and loans from private and public Los Angeles collections.

The Getty Center is located at 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles, California. Opening hours: Tuesday through Friday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is free. Parking is $15 per car. No reservation is required. Additional info is available at www.getty.edu.

French drawings at The Getty
Rue Transnonain, le 15 avril 1834, 1834, Honoré Daumier, lithograph on wove paper. The Armand Hammer Daumier and Contemporaries Collection, gift of Dr. Armand Hammer. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
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A native of Los Angeles, Barbara is the France Today Ambassador for L.A. She graduated from UCLA with a BA degree in Political Science, and also received her JD degree from UCLA School of Law. While at UCLA, she spent her junior year in Grenoble, France. From that time on, she has been an avid and passionate Francophile. She has visited almost every region in France, and still pursues French language courses in Los Angeles. She continues to visit France every year.

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