Galerie Brame & Lorenceau will include this painting in their forthcoming Fantin-Latour catalogue raisonné.
Fleurs et fruits, a expansive and varied still-life comprising a pot of China asters, a cut melon, a basket of peaches and a plate of dark and light grapes, is one of the especially fine floral compositions that Fantin executed for collectors in London during the mid-1860s, in which he purposely showcased his skills in this genre. These paintings quickly established his reputation in Great Britain, even before his work was accepted and became well-known in Paris.
Fantin first traveled to London in 1859, when he stayed with the artist Seymour Haden, the brother-in-law of James Whistler, with whom he also became friendly. Fantin frequently mixed with English artists who visited and worked in Paris, including Matthew White Ridley and Frederic Leighton. Ridley latter introduced Fantin to Edwin Edwards, an etcher and collector who would subsequently become the artist's close friend and a tireless agent on his behalf in Britain. During his second trip to London in 1861, Fantin stayed with Haden, and later with Ridley visited Edwards in Sunbury, where he began a portrait of Edward's wife Ruth. A small still-life that Fantin painted during his stay delighted his hosts (Mme Fantin-Latour, no. 179).
Sensing that flower pictures would prove more lucrative than portrait commissions, Fantin had in fact been considering that he might concentrate more extensively on still-life painting, which might enable him to establish a market both in London and Paris that would insure his livelihood. Fantin painted his flower-pieces, however, as more than a practical means to a financial end; he was quick to appreciate that these efforts taught the artist, as he stated, "persistence before nature," enabling him to understand the "laws of harmony," those principles of "arrangement, disposition, composition" that governed the appearance of visual phenomena and form in the natural world (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1983, pp. 114 and 120). Working with such dedication to the lessons to be gleaned from still-life painting was nonetheless a risky venture for an artist then to undertake, for one had to contend with a traditional bias in the Paris Salon that set still-life painting on a low rung of the hierarchy of artist's subjects. The taste for history painting was paramount, and even a fine group figure composition would attract more attention, reviews, and some measure of welcome controversy, as indeed Fantin's Homage à Delacroix had done during the 1864 Salon.
The Royal Academy accepted one of Fantin's floral still-lifes for their annual exhibition in 1862, further encouraging the artist. Whistler, having acquired some of Fantin's paintings, was delighted to spread the word about his friend's work, and began to arrange commissions for Fantin among his circle of friends and patrons. Whistler advised Fantin on the fees to be charged, and even went to the trouble to collect and forward payment on his colleague's behalf when completed works were finally delivered to their destinations.
Collectors among the Anglo-Greek mercantile community in London became especially enthusiastic connoisseurs of Fantin's flower paintings. The shipping magnate Alexander Constantine Ionides acquired two Fantin floral compositions in early 1864, with Whistler acting as intermediary --Ionides' daughter Helen was married to Whistler's brother William, a doctor. Ionides's other daughter, Aglaia, was married to the merchant Theodore Ioannis ("John") Coronio (1827-1903), who in early 1864 commissioned--again with Whistler as agent--two floral still-lives from Fantin. During the summer of that year Aglaia purchased two more paintings directly from Fantin when the artist was staying in Whistler's studio during his third trip to England. Aglaia was probably the most passionate devotee of art in her family; she owned a number of important Whistler paintings, and posed for Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
In 1865 Whistler brokered yet another commission from Coronio, this time for two flower and fruit compositions--the present painting, and Nature morte (Mme Fantin-Latour, no. 278; fig. 1). Many of the still-life commissions that Fantin received were for pairs of paintings, which were intended to be hung in the same room as pendants. The other painting in this second Coronio commission includes a porcelain dish holding apples and pears, a flat plate with pomegranates, set before a pot of primevères and a carafe on a tabletop. Coronio specified that the present composition combine a melon with the flowers, to which Fantin agreed in advance--"a surprising concession," Douglas Druick has noted, "as he almost never worked to specifications" (quoted in ibid., p. 124). Fantin worked on these paintings during the late summer and fall of 1865, when all of the component fruits and flowers were in season. In a letter to Fantin dated 16 August, Whistler mentioned that "I saw Coronio and told him that you are doing his bouquet with the melon; he is very pleased" (letter in the Library of Congress, text cited University of Glasgow: The Correspondance of James McNeill Whistler, no. 11477). Later that fall, Fantin wrote to his friend Edwards that he was hard at work on still-lifes for London, probably alluding to the Coronio commission.
Even before he had seen the results, for which payment had already been made, Coronio expressed his hope that these two paintings might appear in the 1866 Royal Academy exhibition, no doubt to lend the prestige of that august institution to his most recent acquisitions. Fantin and Edwards agreed that this would be a good idea, as this step would further enhance the painter's reputation in Britain and likely lead to more sales and commissions. Fantin completed the paintings by the end of 1865, having inscribed that year on each canvas with his signature. In a letter to Edwards dated 28 January 1866, Fantin wrote that he had dispatched the canvases to Coronio.
Both still-lifes were in fact accepted for the Royal Academy exhibition in the spring of 1866. After having visited the show, Edwards wrote to Fantin: "I have never seen anything of yours that has struck me so strongly--it is not the cut fruit and the varied details that I admire so much in your work this year, rather there is something in these two still-lifes that I cannot explain--a more frank acceptance of nature, much more simplicity in the total effect. In the arrangement as in real life, Nature was everything for the artist, but it was as if Art found its expression there. You have never said so much as in these works" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1982, p. 125).
(fig.1) Henri Fantin-Latour, Nature Morte, 1865. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.