Houdard: Not Just Japanese Frogs

Charles-Louis HOUDARD (1855-1931)

Color aquatint with touches of etching or drypoint
on wove SPECIAL MBM paper, before 1901.
Ref: BN-IFF 6. Edition of 50.
Signed and numbered in pencil.
Plate: 9 ½ x 13 ⅝ inches.

Charles-Louis Houdard is an artist who remains elusive despite being known to all who have taken an interest in color printmaking in France at the end of the 19th century. His most famous print, published by L’Estampe Originale is titled Grenouilles and is often mentioned in art historical literature as a textbook example of Japonism.

However to this day his nama, as well as his date of birth and death are often listed with some inaccuracy. Even the 1999 edition of Bénézit has neither date, and makes the mistake of naming two “Charles” under Houdard. The confusion likely partially emanates from the fact that the artist’s son Marcel died in 1919 some eleven years before his father (see: Le Matin (Paris), September 23, 1919, number 12991).  Recently uncovered source material now confirms that Charles Houdard died on or shortly before January 28, 1931 (see: Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, January 28, 1931, page 2, number 27).

Thanks to the inventory of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, as published in 1958, we know that only a handful of color aquatints by Houdard can be dated before 1898, and only another handful after 1908. The bulk of the approximately 70 etched color compositions by this master of the painterly print therefore must date from circa 1900 to 1905.

It is not known whether Houdard prepared his aquatint in his own studio, or who printed his etchings. We have encountered an impression of the famous Grenouilles dedicated to Henri Guérard, which may indicate that he learned the tricks of registering plates for color etchings from the intaglio master. However, due to Guérard’s death in 1897, Houdard surely must have frequented another printer.

Our composition was etched sometime around 1900 and apparently printed from three plates. The colors are subdued, and as always in the artist’s works, the mood is quiet. The stillness is conveyed by the smooth water of the pond, which reflects pale sunlight. The sun, they main actor in this overcast landscape is not directly visible. Trees and grass in the foreground cast shadows which lend it perspective. The field in the background and the sky are flattened by same source of light; while a few wrinkles breaking the surface of the water indicate just how bright this fall or winter sunlight is.

Houdard must be admired for the finesse of his aquatint, and the painterly qualities of his prints. He generally used a grain that was so fine, one can only see it by looking closely. Combined with his use of colors, the technique evokes watercolor. Aside from a handful of other artists such as Manuel Robbe, Louis Legrand, and Charles Maurin, few etchers attained such masterful painterly aquatint effects.

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