Fantin made his reputation as a painter, and more particularly as a painter of flowers and still-lives, first in England, and only much later in his own country. While the artist was visiting England in 1861, his friend and mentor James McNeill Whistler, the American expatriate painter, introduced him to Ruth and Edwin Edwards. In response to their hospitality Fantin delighted the Edwardses with some quick sketches of flowers and fruits, and decided on his return to Paris that painting still-lives might prove more lucrative than portraits. This was a risky venture, for if he wished to exhibit at the annual Salon he would have to contend with the conventional bias against still-life painting, which was relegated to a low rung on the hierarchy of artist's subjects. He was encouraged by the acceptance of some still-life paintings in the 1862 Royal Academy exhibition in London. Edwin Edwards became his agent, and Whistler purchased several still-lives and commissioned others for his English clientele.
Despite his success in London, however, Fantin made little headway with his still-lives in the French market, and his entries to the Paris Salon met with little response. By 1876 he no longer submitted still-life paintings to the Salon, and resigned himself to becoming dependent on his English sales. Edwards would buy his paintings outright, and resell them to his expanding list of clients at a substantial markup. During this time Fantin's reputation grew in Paris among fellow painters and critics associated with the Batignolles group around Edouard Manet, the contemporary painter whom Fantin most admired, who was also known for the fresh approach he took to his still-life subjects.
Painting still-lives provided the financial security that Fantin required, for he was in many respects an independent artist whose ambitions fit neither the agenda of the new avant-garde nor met with the tastes of the conservative Salon. Despite the delicacy and painterliness of his touch in his studies from nature he had little in common with the Impressionists, and his real goals lay in the direction of romantic painting. He had long admired Eugène Delacroix, and later the English Pre-Raphaelite painters whose work he first saw at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris as well as during later trips to England. He was also drawn to the work of contemporary composers, especially the ground-breaking and controversial music dramas of Richard Wagner. He fashioned elaborate fantasy compositions on Wagnerian themes, but like his still-lives, these were poorly received in the Salon. His most successful pictures in France continued to be the portraits done in the style with which he began his career, often depicting family members and friends in their domestic settings, and later the large group compositions in which he portrayed the progressive painters, writers and musicians of his day.
Fantin studied briefly with Gustave Courbet in 1861, and the older artist's naturalistic technique continued to influence Fantin, especially in his portraits and still-lives. "He was torn between the pursuit of idealism and the practical necessities of realism" (M. Verrier, op cit., p. 7). Fantin understood that his naturalist approach to still-life painting served to balance the imaginary drama in his fantasy paintings. Painting still-lives taught him "persistence before nature", as he called it (quoted in D. Druick and M. Hoog, Fantin-Latour, exh. cat., The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1982, p. 114).
While Fantin occasionally wearied of the time and effort that painting still-lives required, they sold well and he continued to paint them. Edwin Edwards died in 1879, and his wife Ruth succeeded as Fantin's dealer in England. Fantin continued to sell her the majority of his still-life paintings until 1887, when one of the artist's French collectors introduced him to Gustave Tempelaere. The latter helped Fantin to make headway in the French market, and by the mid-1890s, Fantin no longer needed his English sales, and he ceased sending paintings to Mrs. Edwards.
The present painting, in its choice of non-floral still-life elements, displays Fantin's admiration for the great 18th painter Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. The earthiness of Fantin's technique also shows the influence of Courbet, but Fantin avoided the latter's use of the palette knife and heavy impasto, and instead introduced an airy translucence that he admired in the work of the Renaissance Venetian masters Titian and Correggio. While the absence of flowers limits the chromatic possibilities available to the artist, the choice and placement of more solid objects--peaches and grapes--allows for greater contrasts of mass, volume, shape and texture, set in a deeper space. Fantin exploited the play of glinting light on the waxy cool green and blue-black skins of the grapes, and contrasted these against the more diffuse highlights on the warm-toned, fuzzy peach skins. The straw basket is painted with careful attention given to each strand, without seeming too detailed, and the arch of the handle leads the eye from the foreground to the background in this seemingly casual but carefully wrought composition.