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Louis Icart became world renowned in the commercial art market of the Twenties and Thirties as the foremost French engraver of decorative art. He appealed to a huge segment of the population. His hundreds of fancy-free, colorful etchings were splendid in composition, technique, and their ability to meter the social atmosphere of the times. And as such, Icart was the undisputed leader of what we would later call the Boudoir Art Movement.
Louis Justin Laurent Icart was born September 12, 1888 in the southern French city of Toulouse. His father, Jean, was an upper middle-class banker. His mother, Elizabeth, the homemaker. Although his father steered him towards a practical career in business, Louis would hear none of it. In his teens, he'd loved the soulful pursuits of theater, music, and dramatic arts. He also had a fine sense of humor which he infused into many comical sketches, and signed "Helli", his family nickname.
In 1907, in order to be close to the artistic heart of the world, Icart set off to Paris with his friend Jules Esquirol. The city was then a wonderful place at the height of creative intensity during La Belle Epoque. A vast mix of mingling styles and moods in music, art, literature and social structure. So, in seeking to support himself, Icart was fortunate to obtain employment at a firm that produced the very popular "naughty French postcards". His assignment was to hand-apply small dabs of watercolor-accenting to etchings and photographs of nude or semi-clad mademoiselles! Therefore, he was not only gaining artistic experience of sorts, but was quickly exposed to important artists and distributors of art as well ...what we now call "networking".
Rather quickly, Icart was illustrating for the very popular chic magazines of the day. On the cutting edge of design and social progressiveness, these weekly publications encouraged bold designs in art and strong statements about human sexuality. The women of Paris were the most liberated in the world. They'd cast aside the moral and intellectual restrictions of earlier Victorian decades with a vengeance. Change occurred at a dizzying pace. Fashions and lifestyles became more daring and implied a quite sensual basis to life. Louis easily stepped into a formula of illustration that was already in full swing. But, he did it well, and got noticed. Cartoons, margin designs, and formal product advertisements were usually built around the central figure of a beautiful, sexy, liberated young lady who was wise yet daring in her quest to enjoy life. The "modern girl" began to take on a life of her own in the collective minds of the French, and soon the World. She was their heroine; their sweetheart; and the sweet adventurer who they rooted for! Around 1910-11, Louis Icart was therefore poised on a great threshold. He learned the techniques of watercoloring and copper plate engraving from his work and other artists around him. He noted the printing methods. He observed the large art distributors who sold around the world. And most importantly, he sensed and absorbed the new, liberated atmosphere of his society and propelled it into his work with talent and humor!
Icart's daughter Reine
Dawn of Boudoir Art: Maurice Millière
Maurice Millière was already transferring the image of the liberated modern woman onto copper plate engravings by 1908. His initial works were formal, posed portraits of elegant women in their best formal attire, much along the lines of the well-renowned Paul-Cesar Helleu a decade earlier. But like most graphic artists, Millière found work in designing for the trendy magazines of the day. Once recognized there, an artist had a kind of instant fame with the public, like getting your music up in the "Top 40" now. But Millière was more the artist that the opportunist. He took this "model" or style of composition back to the domain of traditional artists: copper plate engraving. His works from 1910-1914 were a quantum leap of progressive thought and daring visual statement. Etched mostly in the simple drawn "drypoint" technique, lovely young women were portrayed frolicking, adventuring, and exploring their world without the old shrouds of oppression and fear. What thrilled the public is that they often seemed just on the edge of getting into trouble or going too far. Almost. But, they were strong, sure, and resilient! And somehow, their intense sexuality suddenly seemed "natural"!!! If they wore gowns that dipped to show a breast, or nightgowns through which one could see, well, that was nature, and that was their right. Millière's etching's proposed something bold: women are not just beautiful and alive from the neckline up! And, their destiny to explore the world actually included their own sphere of physical existence as well. The public loved it. Men were allured...even secretly admired their spunk. Women saw the freedom as newfound power.
Icart's "Fashion Period" 1912-1914:
In 1912, Louis Icart began mixing his own ingenious techniques and imagination into the process of Boudoir type engraving. He built upon the groundwork of Millière, but soon began to surpass the prior master in visual firepower and psychic content.
Icart's initial works are termed "fashion" because at it's inception, Boudoir masked it's true intent behind presenting trends in clothing design. A new style in lingerie was used as an excuse to actually show the pretty model underneath! As the early years progressed, the artists carefully allowed an honesty to creep into their compositions. A breast might "accidentally" slip out of the lovely new gown. A gust of wind or a naughty cat might tug a dress up high on the thigh. And Icart walked the tightrope within this contrived formula as well prior to World War I. . Therefore, his stunning, free-spirited "girls" wore outrageous hats, bizarre wraps, oddly cut dresses, and sported all manners of bold accessories. These were "fashion" pieces.....with a thinly veiled deeper message.
Most of Louis Icart's early works were engraved on smaller sized plates of about twelve to fourteen inches. Printing costs on fine rag papers were substantial for a young, unestablished artist living off another job. So, edition sizes were small...in the range of 25-75 copies per plate. Therefore, "Fashion Pieces" are harder to come by on the modern Icart market. But despite their scarcity, they are not any higher priced; for they are basic compositions and many collectors prefer the artist's more complex works of the Twenties and Thirties. Still, there is a sweet innocence and basic purity to the models portrayed in these works. One can see why Millière was quickly eclipsed by the "new boy in town"!
On a more personal note, it was during this period that Icart met the ultimate love of his life, Fanny, whom he would marry soon after the war. She was herself an artist, and together the couple drew great lifelong inspiration from one another. She often shows up as one of Icart's models. They had one daughter, Reine, born at the start of the Twenties.
World War I : "War Pieces" 1914-1918:
Unfortunately, the jubilant and socially progressive mood of Paris was badly battered by the bloody, terrifying trench warfare just outside its borders. People hunkered down in their minds to support the troops who were coming back in only small percentages. But the trendy "galant" magazines wisely decided not to back down thoroughly. The troops needed to "see" what they were fighting for! So, on their pages, beautiful young mademoiselles were depicted cheering on, hugging, and kissing goodbye their robust young men. And still, something would always seem to be blowing aside their clothes in the right places. I'd presume that the troops fought harder at the idea of getting home more quickly to such gals! After all, don't they "inspire" a lot more than some old flag?
But Boudoir Art hibernated through the conflict. Icart found his way into the French Tenth Airborne Division and by 1916 was flying his own biplane! During this enlistment, he produced at least eighteen war-related etchings. They clearly focused on patriotic themes of sacrifice and the ultimate victory of Liberty. Though women were always incorporated into these scenes, their mood was severe and determined in their national quest. The horrible reality of war personally touched the Icart family when Louis' younger brother, Raymond, was killed in action. He engraved "Kiss of the Motherland", which showed a French "Miss Liberty" kissing away his dying brother's spirit.
The "War Etchings" show a great graphic advancement for Louis Icart in terms of bolder and more complex compositions; the use of added colors; greater emotional punch; and an early employment of progressive acid etching, or "aquatint". These were still printed in small editions of 25 to 75, and therefore are not easy to obtain these days. I personally think that "In the Trenches" is a stunning and splendid work of style, beauty and deep imagery!
Early Twenties Period: 1919-1924:
With the end of World War I, the western world entered a period of joyous celebration. The French were especially ecstatic to have first, simply survived as a culture, and secondly, now to be able to fling themselves full force into artistic and social progress. Icart was perfectly poised to capitalize on the gaiety and cultural progressiveness. By 1919, he was rapidly producing Boudoir type etchings at a remarkable pace. His ability to create a multitude of interesting compositions, that each grabbed the viewer's interest, was astonishing. And suddenly, his works seemed bathed in a whole new technical aura: the feeling of maturity, confidence, mastery and fullness. The women seemed to have real souls, their postures quite animated, motion realistically represented, layers of color and depth built nicely, and always with some rich inherent storyline. Icart etchings had suddenly evolved into something quite addictive to observe!
Louis Icart quickly became an overnight sensation in French society. His "modern girls" were adored for their gusto and adventuresomeness. But they were not only lovely minks. They were proud, sure, admirable women of wit and intelligence as well. Because our armies had mingled thoroughly, major trends from French culture quickly drifted back to America after the war. These were times when news spread fast. Soon, Americans were smitten with Paris, and as a consequence infatuated with the "pretty pictures" of Louis Icart. Having one in your parlor "spoke" of your savvy and chic trendiness.
Icart struck with stunning clarity of purpose in grasping command of the Boudoir Art market. Not only did he overwhelm in regards to his talent, but he demonstrated a remarkable degree of marketing wizardry. His early association with the large Paris art distributorship, l'Estampe Moderne, beginning in 1919, only served to propel him more strongly into the forefront. They copyrighted his works, dispersed them through galleries and retail outlets across Europe, and even mediated an association with the F.H. Bresler & Co. in Milwaukee to distribute in America. The embossed "EM" seal and printed copyright notations of l'Estampe are often found in the margins of Icarts from this period.
There was a continuing evolution to Icart's style and graphic ability through the early Twenties. One can sense the artist's confidence and daring building; till finally there is just joy and exuberance in his works. In general, the size of plates grew to 16 through 24 inches. More layers of drawing, color and texture were added. The Icart girl no longer had to fend for herself in a sparse, plainly drawn, "drypoint" world. A more intricate use of acid etching in various patterns served to more realistically approximate a three dimensional world through multiple tones of shadow and light. And as the artist's popularity grew, so did edition sizes printed from each plate to meet that demand. Whereas works were printed at 100-150 copies just after the war, by 1924 upwards of 500 were being run off the press per plate. And with popular images even this fell short!
By 1924, Louis Icart had created over 150 different copper plate engravings in what we would call the Boudoir Style. During this burst of creativity, he singlehandedly perfected all the major stylistic elements of its format. By the time other Boudoir artists came on the market beginning in 1922, they could only hope to modify what Icart had already done. As Gable and Elvis are "kings" in their domains, so too Louis Icart would thereafter be "the King of Boudoir Art".
Late Twenties Period: 1925-1929:
Several important changes occurred beginning in 1925 that justify making that date the start of a new "period" in Icart's artistic career. Whereas early decade he was a new sensation, by 1925 he was simply a phenomenon! In that year, Icart produced a set of immensely popular images, including "Laziness", "Spilled Milk" and "Puppies". Copies were printed as needed; individual sheets no longer numbered in edition sequence; and plates used to their virtual exhaustion.
Now, the artist boldly took personal control of the distribution of most of his art. Icart began directly obtaining his own United States'copyrights at mid decade. The "annotations" in the margins now read "Louis Icart", or "L. Icart." He developed his own embossed seal, or blindstamp, that was pressed into the paper of each work along the lower margin edge. This original design looks like a windmill at first glance with the initials "L.I." on either side; but in reality, it is the profile of a printing press. Almost every original Icart after 1925 carries this impression.(see picture) Furthermore, in 1925, the artist's signature evolved from his earlier loose scrawl into a more formal and mature script, which we know as "the later signature". By the end of the decade, Icart was setting up the Louis Icart Society with art distributors in New York City. Ultimately, this organization would market his works with the help of the New York Graphic Society through their art catalogs and outlets. Often, Graphic Society blindstamps appear in the margins of his later works.
The period of the Late Twenties brought into being the classic Icart etching. The woman, who was central to the composition, being a tantalizing mix of innocence and seductiveness. A real paradox of soft, simple beauty and bold brassy adventure. She was no longer obscured; either physically or emotionally. She preferred life to the fullest, and sometimes, frankly near the edge. She liked fun skimpy clothes, especially her translucent negligees. She lounged in private rooms, "boudoirs", heaped to excess with pillows and textiles of soft plush feel and sassy Deco design. This popular image became the "Icart", or "the bedroom picture" to the general public's mind; the inspiration for the expression "Wanna come up and see my etchings sometime?" Key works in Icart's chronology such as "White Underwear", "Smoke", "Cigarette Memory", and "Eve", to name just a few, reflect this spirit.
It is amazing that Icart could be so fruitful and yet always so fresh in his imagery and ideas. His greatest output occurred from 1926-1929. And there was never a dull moment. His pictures ran the gamut from tame to risque, historical to modern, and plain to wholly extravagant. He truly tapped the entire market. And while other Boudoir artists started forging small niches for themselves, what was left for them was small. To use a modern expression, Louis Icart "ruled"! He seemed so much like many men in one, each with his own eye and mood toward seeing a different type of lady in still another nuance of life's great play. You could therefore buy twenty of his etchings and not feel you'd duplicated yourself in any one purchase!
Throughout his career, Icart maintained many interests in alternate areas of art. He was invited to design playbills, posters, gourmet dining club menus, greeting cards, lithographs, and magazine illustrations. As he moved into the Thirties, he would also focus a lot of time and energy on oil painting in the Impressionist style. But, always, he excelled at engraving. And there, he was a Master artist. Out of deference for this ability as an designer, more than a dozen authors of classic novels requested that he illustrate deluxe editions of their books. At this time in France, exclusive editions called "livre d'artiste" were hand printed on the finest rag papers in editions of only 100-250 copies! When illustrated, between 10 and 30 individual etchings or lithographs were sewn into the binding with the text pages of the story. Every image was therefore a hand-printed artist "original"! But since the artist was allowed to sign each finished book, the pictures were not signed individually. These pricey books limited themselves to social strata that were generally progressive and liberal in attitude, thereby allowing the Illustrators much more freedom to explore frank and/or erotic subject matter. Therefore, these were not meant for consumption by the general public. Icart's first endeavor in this regard was a 1926 printing of "L'Ingenue Libertine" by Gabrielle Claudine Colette. He ultimately went on to collaborate on a total of twenty four books! Accumulating these "bookplates" is gaining rapid popularity with modern Icart collectors. And in fact, my colleague, Bill Holland, has recently released a fine book on this subject that I can highly recommend.
Thirties Period: 1930-1940:
During the Thirties, Icart's etchings increased in size and visual bravado. Even the women which they depict seemed bolder and more imposing. They were certainly more strong-willed, more certain of themselves, and less predictable than ever before. As nudes, they were complete unabashed. Even when placed in more "sedate" settings, they were far from the simple passive spectacles which we met back in the early days of Boudoir. For now, Icart's women simply lived out all their dreams. They refused to be held back, held down, or limited to the flat confines of a simple paper world. And in trying to build them a broader Universe, the artist clearly called into play every fiber of his imagination and talent. Consequently, Icart's culminating works are stunning and dramatic. Colors vibrant, depth stunning in vast expanse, and motion swift by virtue of released raw energy. In this decade, Louis clearly triumphs upon a pinnacle of certain genius. While many of his contemporaries were still "scratching out" shapes composed in simple drypoint line, Icart literally painted images with souls on paper!
Near the end of the Thirties, Icart began to almost do the impossible. He seemed to be pushing copper plate engraving toward large stark visual images which were much akin to the progressive photography and graphics that would soon become American PinUp. The arrival of World War II halted such experimental trends. The Boudoir Art market dissolved overnight as the Nazis entered Paris. When the conflict finally ended over five years later, the World was no longer in a very playful or jubilant mood. It was dazed, stunned...frankly shocked at itself. It would take decades for people to recover both their faith and their spirit of joy. And so, Boudoir Art, and consequently the works of Louis Icart, would have to hibernate a while!!!
Forties Period: No Time Left:
During the war, Icart worked on his illustrations for several livre d'artistes, as well as local design projects. His oil painting consumed more & more of his time, as it did not require a market in the outside world. But, unfortunately, on canvas, Louis never matched what he'd achieved on paper! After the war, few were in the mood for frivolous or playful art. And Icart, aging and sick with diabetes, could not reignite the fervor for Boudoir. He passed away in 1950, as did his beloved Fanny in 1971.
Resurrection: 1970's through 1980's:
A few staunch, old-time collectors might argue that Icart didn't need "resurrection" because they'd never put his works away in the first place!!! True, there were some diehard fans who'd maintained a chain of steady faith throughout all those years. In fact, I've known a number who continued to buy "leftover" copies of Icart etchings directly from Fanny Icart well into the Sixties! But, regardless, we must consider what happened in "most cases". In general, Icarts and other forms of Boudoir Art were relegated to attics, basements and even trash heaps. A good example is the fellow from New Jersey who used to trade beers to the local garbage men for Icarts that they'd salvaged on their route! And the stories go on and on! One gal snatched a Gust of Wind out of a garbage day snowstorm just ahead of the truck! Certainly, from the period of 1945 to 1965, you could probably get people to pay you to take their Icarts! It was an odd blindness. One wonders how people could simply "look through" the obvious beauty of a picture... no matter what it's current trendiness! However, anything that has social value or physical beauty will ultimately find its way back into Society's favored eye. For truth tends to pry that eye open.
When was Louis Icart rediscovered? Well, in actuality, it was we who reawakened. Our Western Societies healed. The Sixties broke us free from the wounded involution and restrictive insecurities of a Post War-Cold War mentality. We could live, learn, experience, experiment and feel again! We were beings...not soldiers or clones! We were ready to hear, see, and be! So now, it was finally "safe' again for the women of Boudoir Art to come out of hiding. They would be heard, recognized, and understood for what they were. And finally, be honored for all their bold and gutsy forward-thinking quests!
In the early Seventies, a group of core collectors was forming. Icart etchings could still be picked up at yard sales and shops for a few dollars each! Occasionally, a big "rare one" went for an astonishing twenty five bucks!!! But that was a "mindless extravagance"! In 1973, a Princeton, New Jersey gallery owner, S. Micheal Schnessel, published the primordial Icart compendium: a soft cover "ring binder" containing photographs of approximately fifty etchings! This left a bit to be desired considering that over 500 different subjects were originally sold to the general public! Schnessel met the challenge well. In 1976, he released the first substantial reference book "Icart" through Schiffer Publishing, which featured photographs of close to three hundred graphics. And this book continued to remain our "bible" for well over a decade! Between the late Seventies and mid-Eighties, most of the major collectors and dealers in the field of Louis Icart became solidly established. Soon, a reliable price structure was established based on a more clear understanding of simply what was "available". People began to share information. And proper restoration techniques were employed to stabilize the remaining artworks. Prices consequently began to climb as knowledge built confidence and supplies were outstripped by demand. A typical Icart etching marched from a hundred dollars to well over a thousand dollars through the course of the decade of the Eighties!
In 1990, I released the current reference text, "Louis Icart: The Complete Etchings" through Schiffer Publishing. It was co-written with two other Icart specialists, my friends Bill Holland and Nicky Isen. By this point in time, it's into it's third edition, and shows color photos of over 500 of Icart's Boudoir styled etchings. It contains all the vital facts! I HIGHLY advise any collector to buy it!
Market/ Values: There are some interesting issues discussed in my section "About Boudoir Art", but one bears repeating here: Always buy art because you LOVE it. Make sure you truly and deeply enjoy it; and feel a spark of warm "connection" to it in your soul. Buying art as an investment is risky. And in fact, the value of Icart artworks can go up and down, just like the stock market and world economy. NO ONE can guarantee the future value of any art! Therefore, never use money that you are depending on to live or retire. Buy for enjoyment. If, in the end, prices climb and you profit, then great! But, remember they can just as easily fall. So in a way, it's like buying a car or going on a vacation....the money is spent. The only advantage in buying art is that sometimes you get lucky and make more! Be wise, and learn to enjoy art for its spiritual value....for after all, that's what one of Icart's mademoiselles would have done!
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