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EDGAR CHAHINE
VIENNA 1874 – PARIS 1947


Chahine, like Manuel Robbe, was more at home with the bourgeoisie than with the aristocracy. The aristocracy appears in his plates – seen from a respectful distance. He is much closer both to the world of friends and the worlds of the carnival, the small artisans, the tarts, the poor, and the dispossessed.
Edgar Chahine was born in 1874, probably in Vienna, to Armenian parents, and was taken as a child to Constantinople, where he lived until he was eighteen. Determined to study art he traveled to Venice, where he studied at the Accademia de Belle Arti under Paoletti. In 1895 he went to Paris, where he briefly studied at the Académie Julian with Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens. His true master was, however, the life of the teeming streets of Paris. “As lively as was his enthusiasm for the exquisite grace of Tiepolo,” wrote Roger Marx in 1900, “once Mr. Chahine’s vocation had taken shape he was to move towards an art of expression rather than one of decoration. Thoughtful and sensible, the drama of reality appeals to him more than the fantasies of dreams; he aspires to truth, a truth imbued with character and from which emotion is never excluded. That which has struck him and held him in the moving kaleidoscope of Parisian life, all of which was new to him, is less our feverishness, our turbulent passions, than the spectacle of misery and hard work, the saddening parade of beings conscious of their degradation and dedication to the simulation of pleasure.”
At the 1896 Salon of the Sociéteé des Artistes Français he exhibited a painting called Le Gueux (The Tramp). The paintings he exhibited at the Salon during the following three years also dealt with poverty and degradation, and they were all part of a series the artist called La Vie Lamentable (Lamentable Life).
In the spring of 1899 Chahine attempted his first etching. He was immediately fascinated by the possibilities of the medium, which he wished to explore as fully as possible. He therefore apprenticed himself to Eugène Delâtre, with whom he discovered the endless effects achieved with etching, soft grounds, aquatint and drypoint. Delâtre opened the world of color printing to him, and introduced him to the variations in inking and the properties of various papers. At that year’s Salon Chahine exhibited two paintings, but also three etchings and a drypoint. Loys Delteil, editor of L’Estampe Moderne, and Henri Béraldi admired, praised and encouraged him. By the end of the year he had completed twenty-five prints, and critics, bibliophiles and collectors were already applauding him. Edmund Sagot promptly signed him up for his gallery. Clément Janin, critic, collector and editor, drew up a catalogue of the first thirty prints by Chahine which was published in L’Estampe et L’Affiche (The Print and The Poster) in 1899. Articles in praise of Chahine’s graphics appeared in the Revue d’Art by Léon David and in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts by Roger Marx in 1900.
Eugène Rodrigues, lawyer, collector and bibliophile, as well as writer and critic under the name of Eratène Ramiro was a founding member and president of Les Cent Bibliophiles (The Hundred Bibliophiles), a group of collectors who met at regular dinner parties and commissioned lavishly illustrated books. He commissioned Chahine to etch the menus for the society’s dinners in 1899, 1903, and 1906, and encouraged him to attempt book illustrations, but it was not until 1906 that he was able to commission him directly.
Chahine concentrated almost wholly on graphics between 1899 and 1911. He was awarded a Gold Medal at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900 and another Gold Medal at the Venice Exhibition on 1901. Moving from the Société des Artistes Français, he was elected a full member of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, in whose Salons he was henceforth to exhibit. In 1903 Anatole France, of whom he was to etch several portraits, asked him to illustrate his Histoire Comique (Comic History). Chahine executed twenty-eight etchings, aquatints and drypoints for this work, all printed within the text, though separate sets of the prints were printed without text. He also etched six plates which were not used in the book. In 1905 he produced thirteen prints for Octave Mirbeau’s Dans L’Antichambre (IN The Antechamber).
In 1906 Eugène Rodrigues commissioned Chahine to illustrate a text by Gabriel Mourey, the London Studio’s first Paris correspondent and now established as a leading critic and writer. The book was Fêtes Foraines de Paris (Paris Street Carnivals). Chahine produced one hundred and ten prints and a further three unused ones. Some were tiny, but all teem with the life of the street fairs, the performers, acrobats, clowns, comedians, street singers, the merry-go-rounds, caged lions and performing dogs, jugglers and wrestlers, organ grinders, weight lifters and tight-rope walkers – and the public: idlers gathering round, children, the poor, the bourgeois at the café tables, the rich and elegant, all forming an extraordinarily lively mixture. Chahine did all the etchings using a soft ground, enabling him to achieve soft “penciled” effects. He also engraved the designs on copper plates larger than the page sizes so that there are no plate marks in the book; the illustrations look as if they were drawn directly on the page. Chahine was also to execute a number of large prints on similar subjects.
That same year Mary Jacobsen, to whom he had been engaged to for some time, died of tuberculosis. Chahine was utterly overwhelmed by the tragedy, and broke down completely. His friends, including Sagot, rallied round, and sent him to Italy for a change in scenery. He spent three months there, traveling through Tuscany, Unbria and his beloved Venice, achieving a kind of serenity through feverish busts of work. He would spend his days exploring the towns, Pisa, Sienna, Perugia, Assisi and the wooded surroundings, the ruined convents and ancient buildings, seeking unusual corners. He would sketch them, then go back to his hotel room, where he would transfer the sketches to copper plates, which he would etch there and then. Two of the prints were copies of pictures by Luca Signorelli, two others were after Fiorenzo di Lorenzo. The Venice plates nearly all dealt with people rather than buildings: a pretty girl sitting in a garden, an artichoke peeler on the Rialto, a pearl stringer, a beggar. On his return to Paris, Sagot published the forty-nine etchings, aquatints and drypoints with an etched titled in an edition of seventy-five copies on various papers, with a brief introduction by Roger Marx. The publication of Impression d’Italie (Impressions of Italy) was to mark the end of his first phase as a graphic artist. He had worked out his distress through hard work and now found himself moving away from graphics and returning to pastels and oil paintings.
In the years between 1898 and 1910 Chahine depicted an absolute cross-section of Parisian life. He devoted many plates to the poor, the dispossessed and the street entertainers but he also devoted many plates to the half-world of the theatre, late-night cafés and the dance halls. With almost cruel accuracy he captured the brief moment of youthful beauty of the trotteuses, the midinettes, the models and whores: moments of coquettishness, triumph, flirtation; but also moments of sadness, defeat and despair. Le Promenore is one of the most affecting of such plates. The promenoire was the area around the bar at the rear of some theatres and music halls, where men went stalking and girls of marginal virtue went hoping to be captured, if only fleetingly and not very lucratively. In this plate Chahine placed a girl at the bar, clothes and ringletted curls intended to make her look very young indeed, waiting, almost desperately. A toper at the bar, a multitude of swells and flocks of girls merely emphasize her utter isolation. The proofs in color of this plate, with their ravishing chromaticism, are even more effective in this respect.
The wealthy and elegant make their own entrances. In some of the night time plates they appear to be slumming, enjoying in their own way the pleasures of theatre, of street carnivals, of shopping or café life. Chahine also executed a series of plates showing elegant ladies in their horse-drawn carriages or landaux, taking the air on the avenue des Acacias or on the way to the Bois de Boulogne, seeing and being seen in their latest hat or gown. Some of his prints depict individual women, gracefully seated or posed, or sporting with a tennis racket. Here, too, Chahine finds it difficult to flatter. When the women are pretty he shows them so, but when they are not he makes no effort to idealize them.
Several of his carriage prints date from 1907, as does his splendid study of two women with that short-lived beauté du diable, Brune et Blonde (Dark and Fair). Between 1909 and 1910 he executed several large drypoint portraits of Ghemma, a chubby girl sporting an elaborate turban and an infectiously mischievous grin.
His personal tragedy was compounded by the horrifying massacres of Armenians by the Turks in 1908 and again in 1915, when more than a million were slaughtered while others were exiled to the desert of Northern Syria to die of starvation. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 made any attempt at normal life impossible. In fact, Chahine hardly executed any prints between 1911 and 1921.
In 1921 Chahine married Simone Julia Gaumet, a young art student from Paris. Their son, Pierre, was born in 1930. The year of his marriage was to mark the date of his return to graphics, with a series of prints of Venice, which he revisited. A retrospective exhibition of his works in 1923 in Milan led to a revival of interest in him by the critics. The following year an entire room was devoted to his works at the Venice Biennale. In 1925 he became a naturalized Frenchman.
His return to book illustrating dates from 1925, when he executed a single etching for a book by Georges Montorgueil, Paris, Ses Eaux et Ses Fontaines (Paris, Its Water and Fountains) which accompanied a further fourteen prints by other artists. The book was published by the Société de Saint-Eloy, for which he was to execute etched illustrations in association with other artists for another eight books between then and 1937. More important illustrations included La Mort de Venise (The Death of Venice) by Maurice Barrès with twenty-six etchings in 1926 and Gustave Flaubert’s Novenbre with twenty-one etchings in 1928. His most exciting illustration is undoubtedly Colette’s Mitsou with twenty-six etchings, aquatints and drypoints plus four additional plates and a further sixteen which were not used. In 1933 he illustrated A Vau-l’Eau (Drifting) by J.K. Huysmans, in 1934 a novel by the Goncourt brothers, Soeur Philomène (Sister Philomena). The economic crisis of the 1930s now made it impossible for books to be printed in limited editions with large numbers of original etchings. Chahine was fortunate enough to illustrate two more books, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in 1935 and Verlaine’s Bonheur (Happiness) in 1936, but each was illustrated with color reproductions in heliogravure, not with original etchings. The last major exhibition of his prints to be held in his lifetime was at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad in 1940.
Nearly two-thirds of Chahine’s prints were destroyed in 1926 when his studio burnt down. More were destroyed in 1942 in a flood. While some had been sold when published, many were lost; this only adds to the rarity of this artist’s work. Edgar Chahine died in 1947. The catalogue raisonné of his graphic work, established by M.R. Tabanelli, lists four hundred twenty-nine original prints.