Les Maîtres de l’Affiche

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Alphonse Mucha.

Les Maîtres de l’Affiche was a multi-volume guide to the state of poster art in the 1890s, published in five volumes from 1896 to 1900. Being a French publication, the contents are mostly by French artists but other nations are represented—Britain, Germany, Italy, the United States—although fewer contributions than you might expect given the quantity of pages to be filled. The chief attraction of these books is the attention they give to each design, all of which are printed in colour on a full page, and the time of publication which coincides with the birth of Art Nouveau. In addition to the great Alphonse Mucha there are designs by Eugène Grasset, Henri Privat-Livemont, Georges de Feure, Will Bradley, Louis Rhead and others. There’s also a lot of cabaret stuff from Montmartre which has never been to my taste (although I like the Steinlen posters) but those designs were the typical ones of the period.

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Henri Privat-Livemont.

The first four volumes in this set may be found at Gallica (Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4) but not the fifth volume—isn’t a national library supposed to be more thorough than this?—which may be seen at NYPL. For those who prefer paper reproductions, there’s a reprint in Dover Publications’ Pictorial Archive series, The Complete Masters of the Poster: All 256 Colour Plates from “Les Maîtres de l’Affiche”.

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Louis Rhead.

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Will Bradley.

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Joseph Sattler.

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Aubrey fakery

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Cover of Fifty Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley (1920).

I’ve long been fascinated by fakes and forgeries especially those one finds in the art world, when the ability to imitate another artist’s work succumbs to the temptation to defraud. Artistic forgeries succeed best when there are convenient gaps in an artist’s career, and when the historical record is vague enough to plausibly allow the existence of a lost or neglected work. The fake Aubrey Beardsley drawings that were presented by HS Nichols to the New York art world in 1919 are unusual for offending both these criteria. Beardsley and his work will be subject to renewed attention in March when Tate Britain stages the largest exhibition of his drawings for 50 years, and it was news of this that reminded me of the Nichols fakes. I know the drawings from an appendix in The Collected Works of Aubrey Beardsley (1967), edited by Bruce S. Harris, which presents almost everything that Nichols published in a subscriber-only collection, Fifty Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley, in 1920. Nichols had been in the Beardsley milieu in the London of the 1890s, and was for a short time a partner of Leonard Smithers, the publisher and pornographer who not only published Beardsley’s later works along with The Savoy magazine, but also commissioned the notoriously “obscene” Lysistrata drawings. Smithers was, by Victorian standards, a scoundrel, but also an aesthete, whereas Nichols seems to lack any redeeming qualities. One of the curators of the Tate exhibition, Stephen Calloway, describes Nichols in his 1998 study, Aubrey Beardsley, as “scurrilous”, and provides an account of the Nichols fakes:

That Beardsley’s style was more or less inimitable was sadly proved by almost all those, and there were many, who attempted to fake his work. From the period immediately after the First World War, at a time when AE Callatin and a number of other American collectors were beginning, really for the first time, to make Beardsley originals more valuable, forgeries began to abound. In 1919 a celebrated fraud was attempted when HS Nichols reappeared on the scene, claiming to have an important and sizeable cache of previously unknown Beardsley drawings. They were put on a show in New York. Considerable excitement was generated, especially when doubts about the authenticity of the works began to be voiced in several important quarters.

Denounced as fakes by Callatin, Joseph Pennell and other connoisseurs, these hopelessly inept specimens of the forger’s pen were vigorously defended by Nichols, who claimed in the New York Evening Post, “I know a great deal more about Beardsley than either Mr Pennell or Mr Callatin, but I absolutely decline to make known to the world what I do know”. In fact, he claimed to have had more intimate dealings with the artist than even his erstwhile partner Smithers. The drawings, fifty in number, were published in an expensively produced album, like the Van Meegeren Vermeers; it is difficult now, with hindsight, to see how anyone could possibly have been taken in even then. But, in spite of a useful essay on How to Detect Beardsley Forgeries by the great Beardsley scholar RA Walker, which specifically alludes to these efforts at deception, examples from this very group and others of their like still circulate and surface from time to time.

The note in the Harris book refers to a dismissal of the fakes by Oliver Brenning in the September 1919 edition of Vanity Fair, an article which may be read here (PDF). As for the Nichols book, this turned up recently at the Internet Archive so it’s now possible to see all the fakes in one place. Whoever was responsible for the Nichols drawings (I’ve seen Nichols himself credited) isn’t merely a bad imitator but is also a bad artist, with many of the drawings being remarkably graceless and inept. Beardsley’s art, especially his early work, is often grotesque (“I am nothing if I am not grotesque,” he once said) but it is never ugly. When they’re not being ugly the Nichols fakes assault one’s credulity by showing a pair of young women wearing clothes of a style unknown in the 1890s (Plate 15: “The Twins”), or plagiarising Alphonse Mucha (Plate 49: “Design for a Church Window”). I haven’t checked but I think another of the drawings may be a copy of a piece by Eugène Grasset.

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Whistler by unknown artist (not by Aubrey Beardsley, despite the signature).

Stephen Calloway is correct when he says that the fakes continue to circulate today, mechanical (and digital) reproduction having given them a life they really don’t deserve. (This post might be accused of extending that lifespan.) The Whistler portrait above is one of the more convincing examples which no doubt explains why it was credited to Beardsley in Nick Meglin’s The Art of Humorous Illustration (1973), a book from a reputable New York publisher, Watson-Guptil.

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When Virago published Keynotes & Discords by George Egerton in 1995 they used another of the fakes on the cover. This was particularly ironic when Egerton’s stories had been first published in John Lane’s Keynotes series, a line of books that not only took their name from the first Egerton volume but which were illustrated by Beardsley himself. The worst example of proliferation I’ve seen in print was the Beardsley postcard book published by Taschen in the 1990s which scattered the Nichols fakes among genuine Beardsleys, thus ensuring that the uninitiated would continue to litter the world with the things. Today we have Pinterest, home of the erroneous credit. I doubt the Tate exhibition will draw any attention to the fakes but now that Nichols’ book is online it’s easier for those who suspect an attribution to assuage (or confirm) their suspicions.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Under the Hill by Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley and His World
After Beardsley by Ryan Cho
Aubrey Beardsley’s Keynotes
Antony Little’s echoes of Aubrey
Aubrey in LIFE
Beardsley reviewed
Aubrey Beardsley in The Studio
Ads for The Yellow Book
Beardsley and His Work
Further echoes of Aubrey
A Wilde Night
Echoes of Aubrey
After Beardsley by Chris James
Illustrating Poe #1: Aubrey Beardsley
Beardsley’s Rape of the Lock
The Savoy magazine
Beardsley at the V&A
Merely fanciful or grotesque
Aubrey Beardsley’s musical afterlife
Aubrey by John Selwyn Gilbert
“Weirdsley Daubery”: Beardsley and Punch
Alla Nazimova’s Salomé

Eugène Grasset’s calendar

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I was going to post a few more paintings depicting the month of February but now I’ve circled the calendar with the monthly theme suitable candidates are harder to find. Searching wasn’t a waste of time, however, since I turned up a complete set of the prints by Art Nouveau designer Eugène Grasset (1845—1917) that depict the months of the year. Some of these have appeared here before but I’d not seen a complete set until now. Grasset was commissioned by the Parisian department store La Belle Jardinière in 1894 to produced twelve artworks to be used as a calendar. The portfolio was published as The Months in 1896. The prints also serve as zodiac when you notice that each woman has an astrological symbol on her clothing. See them at larger size here.

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November

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November Morning, Knostrop Hall, Leeds (1883) by John Atkinson Grimshaw.

The month of November in paintings. John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836–1893) returned continually to autumnal scenes, and became very adept at capturing the light of the season as it manifests in the Northern Hemisphere. Many of the paintings below reflect the gloomier qualities of the month when the leaves are finally stripped from the trees.

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La Belle Jardiniere – November (1896) by Eugène Grasset.

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November (1902) by Koloman Moser.

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June

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Twelve Months of Flowers: June (no date) by Jacob van Huysum.

The month of June in paintings is overburdened by bland pastoral scenes and views of battles, the summer months being favourable ones for warfare. Pastoral content is still present in the following selection albeit with an attempt to show some variety. Leighton’s Flaming June is the most famous picture here. It’s also the most popular of the artist’s paintings, understandably so given its radiating an atmosphere of luscious (and possibly inadvertent) eroticism that he seldom achieved elsewhere.

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From Croham Fields, Croydon, Surrey, Just before the First Thunderstorm, Tuesday 28 June 1892 (1892) by William Henry Hope.

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June in the Austrian Tyrol (1892) by John MacWhirter.

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Flaming June (1895) by Frederic Leighton.

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