Henry SOMM

(Rouen 1844 - Paris 1907)

An Elegant Woman Chased by Demons

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Watercolour on paper, laid down on board.
Signed Henry Somm at the lower right.
Inscribed or signed Henry Somm on the reverse of the backing board.
210 x 322 mm. (8 1/4 x 12 3/4 in.)

The subject matter of Henry Somm’s drawings and watercolours tend towards elegant, often wistful young women, depicted with a particular delicacy of touch. The critic Louis Morin, writing in 1893, noted of the artist that ‘Somm is above all a painter. His pastels and water colors are much sought after; he has the painter’s eye to the highest degree imaginable...More than any other artist Somm is the painter of the Parisienne; not the society woman, but the prettily dressed girl who runs about the streets, her nose in the air, laughing unceremoniously at the compliments of the passers-by, and who sometimes enters the Moulin Rouge or the Elysée-Montmarte. It is by Somm’s works that she will live, this masterpiece of roguish grace, the grisette of Paris.’

Datable to the late 1880’s, the fantastic subject of this watercolour reveals another, darker aspect of Somm’s art. As the scholar Elizabeth Menon has written, ‘Throughout his career, Somm treated aspects of modern life that interested the Impressionists, as well as those that preoccupied Symbolist artists such as Théophile Steinlen, Félicien Rops, and Toulouse-Lautrec...During the tumultuous decade of the 1880s in France, the simultaneous presence in the graphic work of Henry Somm of Far Eastern motifs, scenes from Parisian life, social commentary, and elements of the macabre show how the artist responded – in surprisingly innovative ways – to the complex, coexisting currents of Japonisme, Impressionism, and Symbolism in French culture.’

What appears to be a partial study in pen and ink for the woman in this composition appears on a sheet of studies of women in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. A watercolour of a similar subject by Somm, titled Les farfadets and depicting an elegant woman chased by goblins, was on the art market in Paris in 2007.



After studying at the École Municipale de Dessin in Rouen, François Clément Sommier settled in Paris in the late 1860’s, training briefly with Isidore Pils and adopting the name Henry Somm. It was under this name that he illustrated his first book, Alexandre Le Noble’s La Rapinéide ou L’Atelier, poème burlesco-comico-tragique en 7 chants, published in 1870. Somm was to enjoy a successful career as an illustrator and draughtsman, contributing regularly to such popular journals as Le Monde Parisien, Le Rire and L’Illustration Nouvelle, as well as providing illustrations for satirical books like Jacques Olivier’s Alphabet de l’imperfection et malice des femmes, published in 1876. Somm was also active as a graphic designer, providing menus, theatre programs, invitations and announcements for the many fashionable events of Belle Epoque Paris. He produced visiting cards and bookplates, as well as designs for plates for the Haviland porcelain factory, commissioned by the firm’s artistic director, Félix Bracquemond. Somm was one of the graphic artists who fell under the spell of Japonisme, which first emerged in France in the early 1860’s and continued throughout the late 19th century. Some of his earliest work in this genre was first developed in illustrations accompanying a series of articles by Philippe Burty published in L’Art in the early 1870’s. Somm studied Japanese language and history (an illustrated notebook with his notes on Japanese grammar is in the Louvre), but his plans to travel to Japan in 1870 were halted by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war.

At the invitation of Edgar Degas, Somm took part in the fourth Impressionist exhibition of 1879, showing his drawings alongside those of Bracquemond, Degas, Mary Cassatt and Camille Pissarro. The 1880’s found Somm associated with a group of artists and writers at the Parisian cabaret Le Chat Noir, where he produced shadow-plays, and for whose eponymous journal he published reviews and articles. Among his friends at Le Chat Noir was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who made an etched portrait of Somm in 1898, and the two were members of an anti-establishment art group known as Les Incohérents. In the latter part of his career, Somm was employed by the periodical Le Rire; required to provide several drawings for each issue, his draughtsmanship became both more economical in line and more self-assured. Somm’s finished drawings are often related to his more commercial work as an illustrator for magazines or books. Although he died in relative obscurity, a retrospective exhibition of his work was mounted at the Galerie Berthe Weill in Paris in 1911.

Provenance

Peter H. Dietsch, New York
By descent to a private collection, London.

Henry SOMM

An Elegant Woman Chased by Demons