March 25, 2007


Between May 1818 and May 1819, Charles-Frédéric Soehnée filled three albums with an extraordinary series of watercolour paintings and sketches. These, together with a single lithograph, ‘as far as we know, […] make up the bulk, if not the entirety of Soehnée’s œuvre.’ Some details from these watercolours, scanned from the catalogue of his work published last year, follow below.

Detail of a photograph by François Doury of an untitled watercolour (Mauriès cat. no. 108) by Charles-Frédéric Soehnée, 1818/19.


Detail from a photograph by François Doury of an untitled watercolour (Mauriès cat. no. 59) by Charles-Frédéric Soehnée, 1818/19.

Soehnée had been born in 1789 in the Rhineland town of Landau, which at that time was part of France: his odd-looking surname is the Gallicized equivalent of Söhne. His family moved to Paris before the turn of the nineteenth century. From about 1810, Soehnée was a pupil of the Neoclassical painter and illustrator Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson. The best likeness we have of him is that painted by his friend and fellow-pupil Pierre-Louis de Laval (or Delaval), in 1812.

Detail from a photograph by Christie's Images Ltd. of an untitled watercolour (Mauriès cat. no. 68) by Charles-Frédéric Soehnée, 1818/19.


Detail from a photograph by François Doury of an untitled watercolour (Mauriès cat. no. 101) by Charles-Frédéric Soehnée, 1818/19.

Excepting a few conventional landscapes, Soehnée’s paintings are almost entirely devoted to fantastical and grotesque subjects: groups of faceless figures are juxtaposed with variously ratlike and batlike creatures, or skeletal birds; and there is a strange preponderance of stilts, whips and fishing-rods. The titles that Soehnée gave to some of his pictures are further suggestive of a ‘gothic’ sensibility: ‘Journey to Hell;’ ‘Cradle of Death;’ ‘A Place of Silence;’ and ‘The Winds, Grouped around Plague and Death, Cover the Earth with Tombs…’

Detail from a photograph by Photo RMN of an untitled watercolour (Mauriès cat. no. 86) by Charles-Frédéric Soehnée, 1818/19.


Detail from a photograph by Christie's Images Ltd. of 'Première Halte,' a watercolour (Mauriès cat. no. 76) by Charles-Frédéric Soehnée, 1818/19.

At the time these works were executed, it is likely that Soehnee was already engaged in research that would culminate, in 1822, with the publication of a technical treatise in which he disputed the traditional account of Van Eyck’s having invented oil-painting, arguing instead ‘for the existence, since antiquity, of a form of oil painting, or a mixture of encaustic and varnish, which in his view, could be the only explanation for the durability and preservation of ancient paintings.’ Thereafter, Soehnée seems to have abandoned art, and to have ‘become a technician, and a dealer; [and] not content with theorising, he perfected a varnish which was extremely successful—Delacroix mentions it several times in his journal—and which is still in use today.’

Detail from a photograph by François Doury of 'Voyage en Enfer,' a watercolour (Mauriès cat. no. 83) by Charles-Frédéric Soehnée, 1818/19.


Detail from a photograph by François Doury of 'L'Enfer des Jouers,' a watercolour (Mauriès cat. no. 81) by Charles-Frédéric Soehnée, 1818/19.

The present images were scanned from Patrick Mauriès’ catalogue Charles-Frédéric Soehnée (1789-1878): Un voyage en Enfer which was published by Le Promeneur in association with the Galerie Jean-Marie Le Fell, to coincide with an exhibition there last summer. Mauriès’ article Soehnée’s Capriccios: The Paradox in Art, (translated into English by Judith Landry), which appeared in issue 17 of FMR magazine, was my source for the information quoted and paraphrased above.

Addendum (02/07/08): the first, second, fourth, seventh and eighth of the images above are reproductions of photographs of Soehnée’s paintings taken by François Doury and copyright © Galerie Jean-Marie Le Fell; the third and sixth of the photos are copyright © Christie’s Images Limited; and the fifth photograph is by Photo RMN, and is copyright © Thierry Le Mage. All of the above images been reproduced here only for as long as no-one objects to their presence on this site.

Posted by misteraitch at March 25, 2007 01:27 PM

Truly bizarre. A sort of Rhenanian Kubin, except this guy's earlier and far superior... a real discovery. Thanks.

Posted by: E.B. on March 26, 2007 03:55 AM

Month of the hanging men at Giornale Nuovo! Another fine discovery, Misteraitch.

Posted by: C. Rancio on March 26, 2007 08:47 AM

After reading the recipe for his varnish (chloroform! Ether!) I wonder if the fumes played a part in conjuring these visions, just like metal poisoning (according to some authors) deserves some of the credit for Messerschmidt’s wildest creations. Of course these medical explanations explain nothing, but they’re fun to entertain.

Posted by: Michelangelo on March 26, 2007 03:07 PM

How very strange.

And there's not a good face among the people, either; all is haggard and scruffy, rotted and retted.

Posted by: marly on March 26, 2007 07:50 PM

Oh, you silly machine!

Sorry to be a double. But perhaps it was inevitable, given the material.

Posted by: marly on March 26, 2007 07:55 PM

Michelangelo—that toxic recipe is for ‘amber varnish:’ Soehnée’s just calls for ‘gum-lac white’ and alcohol, but, like you say, those fumes could’ve gone to his head…

Marly—I deleted one of the pair before seeing your third (now second) comment.

Posted by: misteraitch on March 26, 2007 08:02 PM

Thanks for these great scans. Really incredible work, the surreal and nightmarish imagery is very inspiring. There's something really horrifying about a slug as large as that with a crowd of people riding on its back. I can imagine the disgusting wet sounds it would make traveling across the landscape.

Posted by: Aeron on March 28, 2007 12:58 AM

Thanks very much. Marvellously dark imaginings. I have a strong sense of déjà vu but I can't quite place it.

[I now have "prawn ride" (to the tune of "warm ride") c(o)ursing through my head.]

He may have acquired practical skills from Girodet but their respective works could hardly be more different. Is that very usual or indeed of any particular significance in art history I wonder?

Posted by: peacay on March 28, 2007 02:53 PM

Amazing! Thanks for posting these images.

Posted by: Hossein on April 2, 2007 12:16 PM

This is a great blog!

Posted by: on April 6, 2007 06:51 PM
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