Treasures from the Vault: Félix-Hilaire Buhot

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Late 19th-century French painting, especially Impressionism, is one of the most popularly loved art periods. The name Félix-Hilaire Buhot, however, is probably not a familiar name. Like the Impressionists, this late 19th-century Frenchman was drawn to portraying contemporary life in Paris and rendering the changing effects of atmospheric and weather conditions. He was foremost a printmaker, rather than a painter, and was a master at technical experimentation.  

Buhot was born in Volognes, France and was an orphan by the age of seven. His adopted mother’s nephew gave the young boy an early introduction to drawing. He studied painting with a local artist and continued his education in the humanities in Caen, France. 

After moving to Paris to further his literary studies, he began drawing lessons at a private studio (or atelier) before he was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts in 1865. He studied under history painter Isidore-Alexandre Augustin Pils. Buhot sought further artistic training from landscape painter Jules Noël, who was associated with the Barbizon School, and Léon Gaucherel. Notably, Gaucherel was an engraver, etcher, and a founding member of the Société des Aquafortistes (Society of Etchers), which promoted fine art etching over the reproductive use of the print medium. 

Buhot made his first original etching in 1872, not long after serving during the Franco-Prussian war. He became an art instructor at Collège Rollins in Paris. His teaching method, interestingly, involved drawing objects from nature and then following by memory; it was met with criticism and, ultimately, he resigned. In place of teaching, Buhot made a living providing illustrations for books and magazines.  

A black-and-white etching of a line of horse-drawn carriages waiting for passengers. Buildings stand in the right background and people walk with umbrellas. Smoke billows from the buildings and walking down the wide street is a man astride a horse.
Félix Buhot, French, 1847-1898. Une Matinée d’Hiver au Quai de l’Hôtel-Dieu (Winter Morning on the Quai de l’Hôtel-Dieu (The Cab Stand). Etching and drypoint on paper, 1876. Gift of Eric and Janet Olson, 2022.391.11. Image courtesy of FWMoA. 

Winter Morning on the Quai de l’Hôtel-Dieu (The Cab Stand) is from the print album French Etchers published by Dodd, Mead & Company, New York in 1884. Albums of original prints were a popular format in Paris used to promote etching. 

The rain gave Buhot an opportunity to focus on depicting the overcast sky and reflections on wet surfaces. Every time the artist makes significant changes to the plate and prints impressions it is called a state. The Cab Stand included a remarkable fourteen states.  

In the stages of creating his prints, Buhot would often make changes in the composition, the ink color, how he wiped the plate, and the paper. He experimented with papers–matching the texture and tint with the nature of the print. This hunt for an array of papers of varying weights, surfaces, and textures led him to “a list of over eight hundred marks of ancient makers.”i Buhot could market these as unique impressions, which challenges our notion of the print as a multiple.  

A black-and-white print of a street scene showing flags blowing in the breeze on a building, families walking down the street, and dogs. Along the edges of the prints are drawings of other people, young and old, standing, walking, and riding horses.
Félix Buhot, French, 1847-1898. La Fête nationale au Boulevard Clichy (National Holiday on the Boulevard de Clichy). Drypoint and etching on paper, 1878. Gift of the Franklin B. Mead Memorial Collection, 1951.12. Image courtesy of FWMoA. 

June 30, 1878 was a special day as the first official national holiday since the defeat of Napoleon III and the establishment of the Third Republic. It was also held during the Universal Exposition. The excitement over this celebration made an enormous impact. Buhot commemorated this momentous event in National Holiday on the Boulevard de Clichy. Impressionist painter Claude Monet also captured the patriotism of the moment in La Rue Montorgueil, à Paris and Rue Saint-Denis. Painted from a bird’s eye view, the fluttering France’s tri-color flags and hordes of people in the street is nearly claustrophobic.  

Buhot enjoyed being the detached observer on the street. His studio was located along the Boulevard Clichy on the southern edge of Montmartre in Paris, an area that was transforming into a bohemian neighborhood. His vantage point was at ground level, immersed in the street activity. Waving flags decorate the buildings. A young boy who strolls with his mother is outfitted in a soldier’s uniform with a plumed hat and a rifle, perhaps embodying the patriotic trust in the relatively new government. The margins reveal additional glimpses of street life. Children run with paper lanterns on long poles, a firecracker is set off causing a commotion, dogs scamper around, and people gather and converse. The marginalia allowed Buhot to expand upon the main subject in the center. Buhot intensified the energy with the use of simultaneous activities in the center and the borders, evoking the multi-sensory experience of walking down the street and being bombarded with fragmented images, sounds, and smells that come from all directions.  

Located in the margin in the bottom is Buhot’s stamp with his initials and an owl, used to signify a special impression. It is likely that he adapted this motif from late 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints that would have featured a variety of small seals in red ink identifying the artist, block carver, printer, publisher, or date in the margins. 

A black-and-white engraving showing the cruelty of winter with dead animals in the streets, shivering people, and starving dogs. Snow covers the busy road, and these starving people are interspersed with well-to-do, warmly dressed pedestrians and mounted men.
Félix Buhot, French, 1847-1898. L’Hiver à Paris (Winter in Paris). Etching, aquatint, and drypoint on paper, 1879. Gift of Dr. Linda McMurray and Dr. Stephen McMurray, 1983.02.1. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

In Winter in Paris, Buhot combined etching with drypoint’s velvety lines to give the snowy street scene a diffused quality so typical of a wet, snow flurry. In the margins, additional drawings show the aftereffects of the snowstorm. A group of people warm their hands, horses are victims of the cold, and other people skate on the frozen Seine. 

Buhot’s small drawings in the borders are a trademark element in his work. He referred to them as marges symphonique (symphonic margins). This device was possibly inspired by Medieval manuscript illuminations’ use of the borders for ornamentation or supplemental imagery related to the central image. As a teenager, he enjoyed looking at old books at the Archaeological Society of Valognes. Examples of original and reproductions of Medieval manuscripts were readily available to see in Paris even then. 

Buhot received the support and recognition of art critic Philippe Burty; however, by 1892, he had ceased making prints. Six years later he died at the age of fifty-one. New York print dealer Frederick Keppel brought Buhot’s work to the attention of the American public in a solo exhibition in 1888. Due to the enthusiastic response to his work by American collectors, large bodies of Buhot’s work is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Boston Public Library, National Gallery of Art, and New York Public Library.  

i “Felix Buhot, Etcher,” Brush and Pencil 2, no. 6 (September 1898): 280. 

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