La Fresne, France
Printmaker and draftsman Rodolphe Bresdin is known for his detailed, imaginative romanticism, seen by some as a precursor of surrealism. He spent the majority of his life in obscurity and poverty, often selling his lithographs and etchings for a pittance, and became admired by collectors only in the Twentieth Century. Bresdin was born in 1822 in the hamlet of La Fresne, then administratively part of the commune of Montrelais, the son of a tanner and metalworker. His family probably moved to nearby Nogent-le-Rotrou in 1830. Bresdin worked for his father as a teenager and taught himself engraving using his father’s tools. He left his family for Paris, probably in 1838. His first known etching has been dated to that year and more etchings followed in 1839. He led a hardscrabble life in Paris, surviving on the sale of his works, growing his own food and keeping pets while he studied at one of the “free schools” of art. Bresdin suffered from vision problems for most of his life, and was hospitalized with eye problems in 1840. He admired the Delaware chief Chingachgood portrayed in James Fenimore Cooper’s (1789-1851) novel “The Last of the Mohicans.” Bresdin signed a few works with the chief’s name, which was corrupted to “Chien-Caillou (stone dog)” and became his nickname. He became the model for the eccentric, poverty-stricken artist in Jules Champfleury’s (the pseudonym of Jules-François-Félix Husson, 1821-1889) novel “Chien-Caillou, Fantasies d’Hiver (Fantasies of Winter)” published in 1845, which would haunt Bresdin for the rest of his life. He exhibited six drawings in the Salon of 1848. Bresdin left Paris the next year, walking south with his pet rabbit and finally settling in a fisherman’s hut in the forest of Limousin near the village of La Joubertie in Corréze, some 480 kilometers from Paris. In 1851 he walked to Bordeaux, but after a year he went to the environs of Toulouse, where he lived in a cabin on the outskirts of the city. During these years he continued to create etchings. Bresdin created his first lithographs in 1854, including one of his better-known works, “The Comedy of Death” (van Gelder 84). He was persuaded that year to move into an apartment in Toulouse, where he caught cholera. He was nursed back to health by Rose Cécile Maleterre (1831 or 1832-1892), with whom he fell in love. His lithograph “The Flight into Egypt” (van Gelder 85) was printed in 1855. Bresdin exhibited the drawing “The Flemish Interior” at the 1857 Salon and turned it into an etching in several versions (van Gelder 86). Rose Maleterre moved into his apartment in 1858 and their first child was born the following year. On the recommendation of the author Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) and others, Catulle Mendés (1841-1909), the young editor of the fortnightly magazine “La Revue Fantaisiste,” commissioned Bresdin to create two plates a month to illustrate the magazine. He moved temporarily to Paris and created a frontispiece and thirteen other etchings (one a reworking of a plate) for it, which folded after only nineteen issues. While in Paris Bresdin had his best-known work printed, the lithograph “The Good Samaritan” (van Gelder 100), and exhibited it with other works at the Salon; subsequent printings of this lithograph would become a major source of his income. By the time his second daughter was born in April 1962, he and his family were living in Fronsac, near Bordeaux and had moved into Bordeaux by the following year. He became a member of the Société des amis des arts de Bordeaux and exhibited with the Société in 1864. Bresdin finally married Rose in 1865 after the births of their third daughter and first son. The young artist Odilon Redon (1840-1916) studied under Bresdin during 1865-66, leading to Redon’s life-long admiration for Bresdin’s art. Count Hippolyte de Thierry de Faletans (1830-?) commissioned Bresdin to illustrate his book, “Fables et Contes” (Fables and Tales). The undertaking proved to be difficult for Bresdin, since Faletans gave him instructions detailing the subjects of the illustrations and rejected many proofs. The book was finally published in 1871. Redon published a long and laudatory article on Bresdin in 1869 in the Bordeaux newspaper “La Gironde.” In March Bresdin relocated to the Left Bank in Paris. He was hospitalized the next year, perhaps for rheumatism and eye trouble. While hospitalized his friends held a fund-raising soirée for him presided over by Gustave Courbet (1819-1977). Trapped in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, Bresdin faced starvation. A supporter of the Commune following the French defeat, he was lucky that he was not deported as were many Communards. He and his family immigrated to Canada in 1873, seeking a less industrialized society, but despite a teaching position in a Montreal art school, his stay was not successful. He created only two prints while in Canada. Funded by the sale of a poem by Victor Hugo (1802-1885) and donations by other friends, the Bresdin family returned to Paris in 1877. Unable to make his living through his art, he worked as a street sweeper and road mender at the Arc de Triomphe. Bresdin separated from his wife in 1880 and moved to Sèvres in 1881, where he lived in squalor and poverty and died in 1885. (TNB 5/2019) Selected bibliography: Dance, Trevor: Rodolphe Brèsdin: An Incorrigible Bohemian. London: Unicorn Publishing Group LLP, 2016. van Gelder, Dirk. Rodolphe Bresdin. 2 volumes. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976.