Van Gogh’s Etched Portrait of Dr. Gachet on Display at British Museum Alongside Prints by Impressionist Masters

A free exhibition at British Museum is currently showcasing over 80 rare prints by major French painters including Van Gogh, Manet, Cezanne, Degas, Gaugin and Toulouse-Lautrec, exploring the flourishing Impressionist print movement of late 19th century France.

The centrepiece of the show is Van Gogh’s etched portrait Recto of man with Pipe, Dr. Gachet. The artist produced more than 2,000 artworks, consisting of around 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches. One of his most revered paintings is the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, with two authenticated versions are painted. One of them is now kept in the collection of Musée d'Orsay whereas the other one was acquired by private collector Ryoei Saito at Christie’s in New York in 1990 for US$82.5m.

The Portrait of Dr. Gachet (etching)

In 1890, Van Gogh's brother Theo was searching for a home for the artist upon his release from an asylum at Saint-Rémy. Upon the recommendation of Camille Pissarro, a former patient of the doctor who told Theo of Gachet's interests in working with artists, Theo sent Vincent to Gachet's second home in Auvers.

Vincent van Gogh's first impression of Gachet was unfavourable. Writing to Theo he remarked: "I think that we must not count on Dr. Gachet at all. First of all, he is sicker than I am, I think, or shall we say just as much, so that's that. Now when one blind man leads another blind man, don't they both fall into the ditch?" However, in a letter dated two days later to their sister Wilhelmina, he relayed, "I have found a true friend in Dr. Gachet, something like another brother, so much do we resemble each other physically and also mentally."

The etched portrait of Dr. Gachet featured in the exhibition is the only one Van Gogh ever made. It was drawn in Dr Gachet’s garden in Auvers-sur-Oise after lunch on 15 June 1890. In July the same year, aged 37, Van Gogh shot himself. The etching was donated by the doctor’s son to the museum in 1923. It has only been displayed twice in outside exhibitions.

The Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent Van Gogh. Private collection

The Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent Van Gogh. Collection of Musée d'Orsay

Another highlight of the exhibition is a print of Manet’s Le Ballon, which is one of the only five surviving pieces. The French modernist painter was one of the first 19th-century artists to paint modern life and a pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism. His well-known paintings include The Luncheon on the Grass, Olympia and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. It was only Manet's second attempt at lithography and was produced for an abortive scheme by the publisher, Alfred Cadart, to encourage the creative use of the medium in the way in which he had successfully promoted etching.

In many ways this print stands alone in Manet's work. Not only is it unrelated to any surviving drawing or painting, but the style of drawing is very different from that used in the other major lithographs. In 1862 Spanish influence on Manet was at its strongest; in this print the style is taken directly from Goya's set of four lithographs known as The Bulls of Bordeaux of 1825. He chose as his subject a contemporary event, located on the esplanade of the Invalides in Paris, where crowds would gather to watch balloon ascents and other entertainments on the national holiday declared by Napoleon III for the 15th August, in celebration of Napoleon I's birthday.

Manet’s Le Ballon (1862)

Goya’s The Bulls of Bordeaux

Manet’s Portrait of Berthe Morisot (1884)

Also featured in the exhibition is Paul Cezanne’s famous lithograph Les Baigneurs, which was commissioned by print publisher Ambroise Vollard. Ambroise Vollard commissioned many artists of the period to contribute to his lavish print portfolios, including Cézanne, who had previously shown no interest in the medium. As Paris exploded with life and creativity, the Impressionists experimented with printmaking, producing striking images of modern city life.

Cezanne’s Les Baigneurs

Paul Gauguin’s Two Marquesans

Japanese art was extremely popular in Europe in the mid-19th century and brought influence on French impressionist artists at the time. One example is French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who was deeply influenced by Japanese woodblock prints. While many great Ukiyo-e artists were inspired by the exuberant life of the amusement quarters of the Japanese Edo period, Toulouse-Lautrec took the nightlife of Montmartre in Paris.

The exhibition presents Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph poster Divan Japonais, which was created to advertise a café-chantant that was at the time known as Divan Japonais. It shows dancer Jane Avril in an elegant black dress and critic Edouard Dujardin watching singer Yvette Guilbert.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s Divan Japonais

The last time the British Museum exhibited its French prints collection on this scale was in 1978, in an exhibition that focussed on one type of printmaking: lithography. The current exhibition will run until 9 August.

French Impressions Prints from Manet to Cézanne

Dates: 20 February 2020 – 9 August 2020
Venue: British Museum
Address: Great Russel St, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3DG
Time: 10am - 5:30pm; 10am - 8:30pm (every Friday)
Admission: Free