How heavily personality counts in etching may be noted in the etched work of Maxime Lalanne which is at the Keppel Galleries. This skilful artist, so deft with his needle, so ingenious in fancy, escapes great distinction by a hair’s breadth. He is without that salt of individuality that is so attracfive in Whistler. Of him Hamerton wrote: “No one ever etched so gracefully as Maxime Lalanne; he is essentially a true etcher. . There have been etchers of greater power, of more striking originality, but there has never been an etcher equal to him in a certain delicate elegance.” This is very amiable, and Joseph Pennell is quite as favourable in his judgment. “His ability,” wrote Mr. Pennell in Pen Drawing and Pen Draughts-men, “to express a great building, a vast town, or a delicate little landscape has never been equalled, I think, by anybody but Whistler.” Mr. Pennell modestly omits his own name; but the truth is that Pennell is as excellent if not more individual a draughtsman as Lalanne, and when it comes to vision, to invention, and to the manipulation of the metal he is the superior of the Frenchman. The American etcher rates Lalanne’s lines above Titian’s. Whistler and Titian would be big companions indeed for the clever-mannered and rather pedantic Lalanne.
Let us admit without balking at Hamerton that his line is graceful. He belongs to the old-fashioned school which did not dream, much less approve, of modern tonal effects in their plates. A Lalanne etching is as clean and vivid as a photograph (not an “art” photograph). It is also as hard. Atmosphere, in the material as well as the poetic sense, is missing. His skies are disappointing. Those curly-cue clouds are meaningless, and the artist succeeds better when he leaves a blank. At least some can fill it with the imagination. Another grave defect is the absence of modulation in his treatment of a landscape and its linear perspective. Everything seems to be on the same plane of interest, nor does he vary the values of his blacks — in foreground, middle distance, and the upper planes the inking is often in the same violent key. Such a capital plate, for example, which depicts a fire in the port of Bordeaux is actually untrue in its values. Dramatic in feeling and not without a note here and there of Rembrandt, this particular composition fails, just fails to hit the bull’s-eye.
After all, we must judge a man in his genre, as Keppel pere puts it. Maxime Lalanne’s style is that of a vanished generation in etching. He was a contemporary of Meryon, but that unhappy man of genius taught him nothing. Born at Bordeaux in 1827, Lalanne died in 1886. He was a pupil of Jean Gigoux (1806-94), a painter whose gossipy souvenirs (1885) pleased Paris and still please the curious. (Gigoux it was who remained in Balzac’s house when the novelist died, though he was not visiting the master of the house.) From this painter Lalanne evidently imbibed certain theories of his art which he set forth in his Treatise on Etching (1866).
Strangely enough, illustrator as he was, his transpositions into black and white of subjects by Troyon, Ruysdael, Crome, Constable, and many others are not so striking either in actual technique or individual grasp as his original pieces. Constable, for instance, is thin, diffuse, and without richness. Mezzotinted by the hands of such a man as Lucas, we recognise the real medium for translating the English painter. A master of the limpid line, Lalanne shows you a huddled bit of Amster-dam or a distant view of Bordeaux, or that deli cious prospect taken on a spot somewhere below the Pont Saint-Michel, with the Pont Neuf and the Louvre in the background. He had a feeling for those formal gardens which have captured within their enclosure a moiety of nature’s unstudied ease. The plate called Aux Environs de Paris reveals this. And what slightly melancholy tenderness there is in Le Canal à Pont Sainte-Maxence. There are several states of the “Villers” etching, an attractive land and seascape, marred, however, by the clumsy sameness of the blacks in the foreground.
Without possessing Meryon’s grim power in the presentation of old Paris streets and tumble-down houses, Lalanne has achieved several remarkable plates of this order. One is his well-known Rue des Marmousets. This street is almost as repellent-looking as Rue Mouffetard at its worst period. Ancient and sinister, its reputation was not enticing. In it once dwelt a pastry cook who, taking his crony the barber into his confidence, literally made mince-meat of a stranger and sold the pies to the neighbours,
Messire Jacques du Breul, in his Le Théâtre des Antiquités de Paris (1612), remarks, not without critical unction, in his quaint French: “De la chair d’icelui faisit des pastez qui se trouvaient meilleurs que les aultres, d’autant que la chair de l’homme est plus délicate à cause de la nourriture que celle des aultres animaux.” Every one to his taste, as the old politician said when he kissed the donkey. When you study the Lalanne etching of this gruesome alley you almost expect to see at the corner Anatole France’s famous cook-shop with its delectable odours and fascinating company.
The scenes of Thames water-side, Nogent, Houlgate Beach, at Richmond, or at Cusset are very attractive. His larger plates are not convincing, the composition does not hang together; the eye vainly seeks focussing centres of interest. Beraldi was right when he said that Lalanne has not left one surpassing plate, one of which the world can say: There is a masterpiece! Yet is Maxime Lalanne among the Little Masters of characteristic etching. His appeal is popular, he is easily comprehended of the people.