Theodore Roussel (1847-1926)
|The Gerrish Fine Art collection was purchased in the 1980s from Théodore Roussel’s descendants who inherited it from the artist’s studio. As a collection it represents a cross-section of Roussel's oeuvre and is significant in its holding of rare proofs. |
Born in Lorient, Brittany, Théodore Roussel spent most of his childhood between the French countryside and Paris after his father’s death at the age of nine. Roussel joined the Battalion of the Garde Nationale Mobile in 1869 and was called to active duty when the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870. After being wounded in action the young captain was discharged in December 1872. Following his military service, Roussel remained devoted to his vocation as an artist and dedicated his career to the technical exploration of printmaking.
After travelling to England Roussel discovered the art market there was more favourable for his work and settled in London in 1878. The complex techniques he developed contributed significantly to the British Etching Revival. After establishing a reputation and professional career within the London art world he met James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) in 1885. A decade long friendship and partnership grew from a mutual artistic admiration and a deep personal understanding. Roussel remained close to the artist until 1892 when Whistler moved to Paris. Similar subject matter, style, scale, and printing methods exemplify Whistler’s influence on Roussel’s etchings and lithographs from this period. Unlike Whistler, no gallery or dealer published Roussel’s etchings or lithographs and as a result he printed only a small number of impressions. During the 1890s, Roussel devoted his time to color printing. In 1909 he was elected the founding president of the Society of Graver-Printers in Colour, a position he held until the end of his life.
With Whistler’s encouragement Roussel produced his first etchings of Chelsea in the spring of 1887. Both artists worked together and Roussel mimicked Whistler’s process of drawing from nature, printing his own plates, and trimming the sheets to the plate mark while leaving a tab for his signature. The printing process, in particular the manipulation of tone while wiping the plate, captured Roussel’s imaginative creativity. By 1888 he established a signature style with a series depicting the Chelsea Embankment. A majority of these etchings exist only in one state and depict the lives of the people who defined the neighbourhood.
While continuing to produce etchings, Roussel also completed a small number of transfer lithographs. He was encouraged to experiment with lithography by working with Thomas Way, the printer who introduced lithography to Whistler in 1878. Both artists followed the practice of drawing the image on paper with a crayon and allowing Way to transfer the drawing directly to the lithographic stone. Eleven known lithographs remain that were produced by Roussel and Way. The series was exhibited at the Dowdeswell Gallery in 1894. Margaret D. Hausberg has suggested that Roussel’s brief engagement with transfer lithography ended because it did not satisfy his desire to experiment and labour over the printing process.
Frame and Mount Designs
Along with his etchings Roussel exhibited two distinctive frames for the first time at the Dowdeswell Gallery in 1889. The wooden frames were covered with paper—printed with etched designs—and then varnished. The unique affect of the frames was mentioned in the reviews and one critic described the frame as having the “appearance of carved ivory”. Throughout the rest of his career Roussel continued to create decorative and harmonious displays for his work with a distinctive style.
Beginning in the 1890s Roussel began to experiment by mixing inks and combining printing techniques, such as aquatint and softground etching, to produced coloured prints. In his later prints his successful use of softground etching produced a cohesive dark background allowing him to control the tonal qualities throughout the plate. Continuing to experiment Roussel also began to use tin and celluloid plates instead of the traditional copper and zinc. Pushing the boundaries of colour printing Roussel did not publish specific details about his methods, referred to as the ‘Roussel Medium’. Today few impressions survive making it difficult to reconstruct his meticulous process. Consisting of a water-based ink, described as a mixture of rice powder and pigment, textile plates were used and the ink was applied through a series of paper stencils. The end results offer beautifully delicate compositions that speak to Roussel's ambition and skill.