Who Put the Silhouette in Snapshot?

Henri Rivière. Cabaret of the Chat Noir: Stagehands moving zinc figures behind the screen for The Epic, ca. 1887-94. Gelatin silver print, 3 1/2 x 4 3/4 in. (9 x 12 cm.) Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Gift of Mme. Henriette Guy-Loé and Mlle. Geneviève Noufflard, 1986.

A look at Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard reveals a predilection for the silhouette that has as one of its sources the shadow theater experiments of Henri Rivière and his colleagues at the Chat Noir cabaret. Rivière, a printmaker and photographer featured in the Snapshot exhibition, was responsible for helping to make the shadow play productions a complex, pre-cinematic art form. The Chat Noir was the place to be in the 1880s and 1890s. The Paris café was frequented by poets and writers Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Emile Zola, composers Claude Debussy and Erik Satie, and artists Pierre Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec. As Patricia Boyer points out in her book on avant-garde theater in nineteenth century Paris, the illustrators who created the Chat Noir productions “breathed new life into the tradition of shadow plays in France.”

Early shadow plays at the Chat Noir were made of black cardboard or zinc cutout figures projected onto a backlit screen. The shadow plays evolved, thanks to Rivière’s innovations, to incorporate glass panels upon which were painted figures and settings, placed at varying distances from the screen and with moving zinc cutouts in front of them to suggest spatial recession: the cutouts placed nearest to the screen appeared black, while those further from it yielded a variety of grays and soft colors. Continue reading “Who Put the Silhouette in Snapshot?” »

Parallel Meanings


(Left) Pierre Bonnard, Marthe nude, seated on the bed with her back turned, 1899-1900. Sepia-toned gelatin silver print, 1 1/2 x 2 in. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Gift of the children of Charles Terrasse, 1992. (Right) Pierre Bonnard, "Eté" (Summer), illustration from Parrallèlement by Verlaine, 1900. Lithograph with rose-sanguine ink, 11 5/8 x 9 5/8 in. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard, features photographs by Pierre Bonnard which served as prompts for book illustrations for Parallèlement, a book of erotic verse by Paul Verlaine published by Ambroise Vollard. As Françoise Heilbrun points out in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, the pink pencil outline imparts the female body with a kind of “feverish sensuality” that is in keeping with the poems. Surprisingly, the French censors at the Imprimerie Nationale agreed to do the printing, mistakenly thinking that Parallèment was a book on geometry! Using the character of Ubu, a tubby symbol of the French state, Bonnard and his friend, the avant-garde playwright Alfred Jarry, mocked the censors’ initial misunderstanding and their belated awareness of the true nature of the project.

Ubu observes a painting of geometric lines, only to be bowled over upon deciphering what he is really looking at. (Left) Cartoon on page 22 of Alfred Jarry, Almanach illustré du Père Ubu, 1901. Lithograph, page 200 x 285 mm. France, private collection. (Right) Cartoon on page 23 of Alfred Jarry, Almanach illustré du Père Ubu, 1901. Lithograph, page 200 x 285 mm. France, private collection.


William Merritt Chase: Hide and Seek

William Merritt Chase, Hide and Seek, 1888. Oil on canvas, 27 5/8 x 35 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1923.

Hide and Seek is one of my favorite paintings in The Phillips Collection. Notable for its restraint, it is a marvel of visual economy. Hide and Seek was not a typical work for Chase, who was known for his tendency to paint cluttered interiors. His studio was filled with curios from all corners of the world, including a white Russian wolfhound, two macaws, and a cockatoo. There are only four objects in Hide and Seek, and Chase makes each one count Continue reading “William Merritt Chase: Hide and Seek” »