Lucien Pissarro Le Miroir c.1911

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Artwork details

Artist
Lucien Pissarro 1863–1944
Title
Le Miroir
Date c.1911
Medium Wood engraving on paper
Dimensions Image: 67 x 67 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Purchased 1924
Reference
P07099
View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Catalogue entry

PISSARRO, Lucien 1863-1944
Mes Yeux fixes from Judith Gautier Poèmes tirés du Livre de Jade 1911
P07099
Five block colour wood-engraving 67 x 67 (2 5/8 x 2 5/8), on laid paper approximately 153 x 150 (6 x 5 7/8), engraved by Lucien Pissarro and published by the Eragny Press in an edition of 12, aside from in an edition of 130 in Judith Gautier, Poèmes tirés du Livre de Jade, London 1911, reproduced p.13 (colour)

Printed monogram ‘LP’ bottom left; inscribed by the artist in pencil ‘7/12 Lucien Pissarro del[ineavit], sc[ulpsit] & imp[ressit]’ below image

Purchased (Duveen Drawings and Paintings Fund) 1924

Provenance:

Bought from the artist January 1924
Exhibited:
Long loan to Victoria and Albert Museum, London from 1930s – February 1977 (3853, titled ‘Le Miroir)

Literature:
Alan Fern, ‘The Wood Engravings of Lucien Pissarro with Catalogue Raisonné’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Chicago, 1960, no. 215
Marcella D. Genz, A History of the Eragny Press 1894-1914, Delaware and London 2004, p.225

The wood-engraved design, Mes Yeux fixes [My Gazing Eyes] is one of seven coloured roundels which appear in the Eragny Press publication, Poèmes tirés du Livre de Jade by Judith Gautier, 1911, a slim volume of poems in French, translated from the original Chinese.[1] The print, which centres on the figure of a woman gazing into a mirror, is one of a small set of separate proofs, divorced from the original context. As was often his habit, Pissarro made a separate edition of twelve intended for sale aside from the one hundred and thirty which appeared as part of the book. For a general discussion of the Eragny Press see the ‘Introduction’ and the biographies of Lucien and Esther Pissarro. Another illustration from the Livre de Jade project is Ivresse d’amour (see Tate, P07098).

In Pissarro’s version of the Livre de Jade, the illustration Mes Yeux fixes accompanies lines by a twelfth century poetess named Ly-Y-Hane. She was particularly admired by the Chinese for her verses on the suffering of lovers, passed down over the centuries through repetition and transcription. Her poem is a mournful lamentation by a woman reflecting on the imminent departure of her lover and the sad ending of their relationship. The melancholic state of mind of the speaker is highlighted by her ‘yeux fixes’ or hopeless staring gaze which, like a sickness, renders her incapable of doing anything except pondering her loss. The theme of the print is particularly suggested by the last lines of the poem:

Ah! Plus lourd encore, désormais, mon regard pèsera sur toi, miroir pâle, car, en ce moment même, s’accomplit le malheur qui va faire irrémédiable, la tristesse de mes yeux fixes! [Translation - Ah! Heavier again, in the future, my gaze will weigh upon you, pale mirror, for at this very moment, is realised the misfortune which will make the sadness of my gazing eyes irredeemable!][2]

The roundel is not a literal illustration of the poem as local detail supplied in the narrative, such as descriptive facts about the lady’s bedroom and dressing table, have not been taken up in the image. Rather Pissarro’s design encapsulates the spirit of the poem and provides a symbolic visual equivalent for the emotional content of the text. By reflecting on the image of the woman gazing into the mirror, the viewer is to some extent empathising with the voice of ‘mes yeux fixes’, and replicating the act of looking and musing. The image of the female figure gazing at her reflection in the mirror is a recurring subject in Romantic art, recalling paintings of the self-absorbed contemplation of the goddess Venus and implying the erotic gaze of a male viewer. The theme of a beautiful woman lost in reverie would also have been a familiar motif to viewers of the time through the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly the later works of Rossetti, and other English artists of the period such as Frederic Leighton, George Frederic Watts and even J.M. Whistler’s portrait of his mistress standing beside a mirror, Symphony in White, No.2: The Little White Girl, 1864 (Tate, N03418). By incorporating a traditional theme derived from Western Art within an Oriental context and visual language, Pissarro was engaging with wider artistic preoccupations of the period and making both the French and Chinese elements of his publication accessible for an English audience.
Art historians have often highlighted the failure of the Eragny Press as a commercial venture, blaming Pissarro’s lack of business acumen in the face of aesthetic considerations. However, the choice of the Livre de Jade as the subject for an Eragny volume was a calculated one and demonstrates an awareness of market forces and consumer demand. At the turn of the century Pissarro wanted to follow up the technical and artistic achievements of his previous publication, Gérard de Nerval’s Histoire de la Reine du Matin (1909), with another book that would appeal to the collectors within the competitive field of English private press publications. There was considerable Western interest at this time in the Far East, generated and enhanced by ‘Orientalist’ literary and artistic interpretations of culture and society.[3] Although the notion of the ‘Orient’ was a largely inauthentic construct based upon vocabulary and imagery that articulated difference, exoticism and mystique rather than factual knowledge and realities, there was a widespread vogue for Eastern inspired art, furniture and design. Pissarro’s decision to illustrate the Livre de Jade demonstrates a deliberate engagement with this fashionable trend. The book was one of the first collections of Chinese poetry to be appear in a Western language. Although it is now recognised that the translator, Judith Gautier (1845-1917), did not produce a faithful rendering in French from the original, or remain true to the unique syntactical nature of Chinese poetry, [4] her efforts had achieved a high level of popularity since their first appearance in 1867. The poems conveyed an authentic sense of the spirit of the Orient and were also hugely influential to contemporary French poetry. Gautier herself was the daughter of the French Romantic poet, Théophile Gautier, and the first woman to be admitted to the Goncourt Academy of literature. Professor Luo Xinzhang has pointed out the similarities between her verses and the work of the French Symbolists.[5]

The nature and style of Gautier’s translated poems meant that they were ideally suited to presentation as part of a beautifully worked decorative object where the quality of the illustrations and the appearance of the bindings matched the exotic nature of the content. The interdependence of form, content and expression within Chinese poetry found a natural counterpoint within the ideals of the private press movement of the time. In the preface to the Eragny Press edition of the poems published in 1911, Diana White proposed that the purpose of Chinese verse was to achieve perfectly balanced and flowing sentences that draw on particularly beautiful observed images. This carefully-wrought and evocative aestheticism carried ‘pure decoration beyond its ostensible purpose into the province of philosophy’.[6] The leading exponents of avant-garde book publication in England such as William Morris, Charles Ricketts, Charles Shannon and Pissarro similarly believed that an object should be made beautiful through the combination of layout, typeface and surface texture and that this should be as meaningful to the eye as the literary content was to the mind. In attempting to produce the ‘book beautiful’ the artist-engravers allotted serious consideration to the suitability of the designs to the content of the text.[7] The simple and elegant forms of Pissarro’s Livre de Jade prints, embellished with gold and accompanied by subtle details and delicate colours, were therefore particularly well suited to the poems they accompanied. The Eragny version includes only a limited selection of poems from Gautier’s original translation so the artist clearly made deliberate and considered decisions about the most suitable verses for inclusion. He consciously chose the poems which were best suited to his style of illustration. He then tailored the accompanying designs not only to exploit the prevalent fashionable taste for Japanese and Chinese art, but also to present selected elements of the Orient in a format recognisable and acceptable to the Western eye.

For a discussion of Pissarro’s technical accomplishments in colour wood engraving in the Livre de Jade see the text for P07098.
Nicola Moorby
October 2002


[1] There is a copy in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

[2] Judith Gautier, Poèmes tirés du Livre de Jade, with a preface by Diana White, London 1911, p.16. An English translation of the poems is James Whitall, Chinese Lyrics from the Book of Jade translated from the French of Judith Gautier byJames Whitall, London 1919.

[3] See for example Nicholas Tromans (ed.), The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2008.

[4] Luo Xinzhang, ‘Judith Gautier et son Livre de Jade’, in East-West Dialogue: Chinese and European Literature, vol.IV, no.2, June 2000, p.84.

[5] Ibid., pp.91-3.

[6] Judith Gautier, Poèmes tires du Livre de Jade, with a preface by Diana White, London 1911, p.4.
[7] Pissarro’s own aims for his engravings were expressed in a joint essay with Charles Ricketts, De la typographie moderne et de l’harmonie de la page imprimee, Hammersmith 1898, and in the Eragny publication, Thomas Sturge Moore, A Brief Account of the Origin of the Erangy Press and a Note on the Relation of the Printed Book as a Work of Art to Life, Hammersmith 1903.

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