Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Desboutin: More than a Model

If Marcellin Desboutin (1823-1902) is remembered at all, it is usually in respect to his role as a model for Manet and Degas. (Below are images of him as painted by Manet and Degas, respectively.)

However, Desboutin was much more than a model. He was a well-known and well-regarded artist in his own right.

In spite of his scruffy appearance (self-portrait, left), he was high born, well educated and an exceptional painter and printmaker. As a painter, he exhibited with the Impressionists in the Salon des Refuses. However, it was mainly as a printmaker that Desboutin was best known in the Impressionist era.

He was 50 years old when he studied etching. By his own account, he had squandered his fortune and lost a mansion in Italy. He came to Paris and settled into the penniless Bohemian life of an artist. Once he learned etching, he was able to support himself to some degree by creating and selling portraits.

Desboutin portraits were usually an edition of 20 and included portraits not only of Manet and Degas but also Renoir, Morisot (see Archives, Jan. 2010), Zola and Duranty. His artist friends considered his work to be wonderfully spontaneous and exceptionally good. Desboutin captured the immediacy that the Impressionists preferred over the stiffly posed portraits of previous times. Here are a few of his prints: (click to enlarge)

Two interesting facts were discovered in my research: In 1890 Desboutin along with Rodin, Carriere and Meissonier, was a founder of Society of Beaux-Arts and at a robust 74 years of age he was honored with the Gran Prix at the Exposition Universelle.

For all of the recognition and honors paid to Desboutin during his life, the lasting recognition of him centers on the paintings by Manet and Degas where he is referred to as "the artist-model." Interesting how time will remember someone, yes?


  1. It's interesting how history can be so reductionistic about a whole life. Jen

  2. Once again, I've never heard of him. His portraits look like real people, so much more so than the "stiffly posed" ones of the previous painters. By the way, how do you find these obscure artists? And how is it that with all of those talented people we only hear about the few that the art historians have chosen for us. sz

  3. Those are good questions, SZ. I could also add how do "they" select what we will learn about the them? RA

  4. Very interesting. MJ

  5. So many really great artists have faded into obscurity, when others not so talented have become famous. Life and Art certainly are strange bedfellows at times. Thanks for this intro to someone I had never heard of, even as the model.