Fantin-Latour, Henri: White Cup and Saucer (1864)

The Independent's Great Art series

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About the artist

The minimal, the simple, the deceptively simple, the elementary thing that delivers a surprisingly big experience – it is one of the hallmarks of contemporary art. But this aesthetic has a history: it originates in one particular form of art: the still life. Traditionally classed as the lowest type of painting, the still life raised itself up by getting its basic, tabletop subjects to yield the most resonant sensations.

This achievement of the still life has a moral dimension. It expresses a religious or democratic belief in the value of humble, everyday things. It says that the ordinary, and perhaps especially the ordinary, is glorious. It also involves virtuosity. The miracle of the everyday requires a small artistic miracle to bring it out, to show the glory in the ordinary, to put the maximum into the minimum. And few still lifes have so minimal a starting point as Henri Fantin-Latour's White Cup and Saucer.

Just that, and little more. The picture is an act of strict isolation. The cup and saucer are deprived of all the real circumstances in which a cup and saucer would normally occur. This is not a cup and saucer on a shelf in a china shop, because why the teaspoon? This is not a cup and saucer being used to take tea, because where's the tea? This is not a cup and saucer waiting on a laid table, because where are the surrounding tea things?

The subject, in other words, is taken out of life. It is nothing but these things: cup and saucer and spoon. They are visually isolated, too. Placed on a plain, dark wooden surface, they lie against an almost abstract background. It amounts to a powerful emphasis. With no rivals, no setting, no context, they are our sole object of attention, to be dwelt on for themselves. They assert a level of interest that they wouldn't have claimed in a more crowded scene.

These simple, normal things attract metaphors, become anthropomorphic. You can notice, for instance, that a cup-and-saucer is not a singular thing. It is a twosome, a relationship – head and shoulders, male and female? And there's a further relationship, between the china pair and the spoon – clay and metal, body and sword? And what about the cup's round handle? Every form is filled with potential significance.

But though cup and saucer are the centre of attention, they're not literally at the centre of the picture. They are visibly set to the left. This shift, this more casual framing, makes a small but decisive difference. White Cup and Saucer is not a full-on icon of a cup and saucer. It is more like a view that happens to include a cup and saucer. Even though there's nothing else in view, and even though their shift to the left is approximately balanced and recentred by the teaspoon sticking out on the right, still, this cup and saucer aren't quite the focus of the scene. The significance that the picture undoubtedly claims for them is modified by a feeling that they're just things in a wider world.

Neither is the cup centred on its saucer. Its base isn't settled in the saucer's central declivity. Again, it is set slightly to the left. So do we take it that the cup has been just casually put down, not seated in its proper place? Or perhaps this displacing is more a deliberate imprecision in the way it's painted.

There's quite a lot of uncertain looseness in the depiction. The cup seems not cylindrical but rather polygonal, made up of a series of flats, like the staves of a barrel – or is that just the artist's simplified way of depicting a rounded surface? The saucer doesn't seem quite right, either. Surely, given the angle of view, we wouldn't see so much of its underside and base?

These wonky aspects confer a hand-made, home-made quality on to an item that was, in reality, much more regular. You're conscious that a neat, manufactured object is being translated into hand-painting, being handled in the process, made into a slightly more friendly thing.

It's transformed in other ways, too. If you know teacups, the illumination here is strange. The china's brittle, glazed skin is remarkably unreflective – a soft, rough, matt finish, with no sharp highlights shining along the rims, and no feint reflections in the surface. Its interior volume brims over with a filling of pure white paint, a kind of evening out of its internal brightness. And the shadows all over are played down. The cup is modelled with a low contrast between light and shade.

In short, the whole vessel – while within the bounds of realism – is approximating to a state of tonally uniform whiteness. That is how Fantin-Latour glorifies his modest teacup, by making its whiteness look like an inner glow, rendered all the more luminous by the dark brown background against which it lies.

So, the ordinary cup has justified its dramatic isolation, and rewarded our concentrated attention, by being perfected into a more spiritual cup, a vessel illuminated from within. But the perfecting is tactfully done, not too insistent. The cup remains off-centre. Its intensified whiteness is moderated by the hand-made, "de-perfecting" aspects of the way it has been painted. It does not become a pure symbol, a holy grail. It remains an honest teacup, with an added aura of praise. The whole picture is not much bigger than its reproduction here.

The Artist
Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) was a conservative talent with avant-garde sympathies. Best known for his many dense and luxuriant, though sometimes severe, flower paintings, there's also a series of group portraits, painted in a stiff, precise manner, depicting gatherings of some of the more advanced painters and writers of his time: Manet, Whistler, Monet, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Zola. His imagination was also captured by Wagner, resulting in dreamy images of Rhinemaidens etc.

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