Félix BUHOT: La Place des Martyrs et la Taverne du Bagne

From the gallery's archives: sold long ago...

Felix Buhot - Place des Martyrs - Taverne du Bagne

Félix BUHOT (1847-1898): La Place des Martyrs et la Taverne du Bagne

Etching, roulette, soft-ground and drypoint on thick wove paper, 1885.
Refs: Bourcard/Goodfriend 163, Bonafous-Murat 289.
Plate: 13 ¼ x 17 ⅝ inches.

It is surprising how little has been said about this famous intaglio by Buhot.  The artist is at the height of his art in 1885 and is known to many in Paris as one of the foremost etchers.  This large plate is unequivocally one of the most appealing in Buhot’s œuvre and one of the last great compositions before the artist slides into a debilitating depression which eventually claims his life.  Taverne du Bagne offers a wealth of information about its subject matter.  The tavern was opened on October 6, 1885 by Maxime Lisbonne, a theater promoter and café owner, who had returned five years earlier from exile.

Lisbonne, a Commune leader in 1871 had been on the wrong side of history and spent ten years in prison in New Caledonia.  Buhot’s print depicts the tavern and shows the name of Maxime Lisbonne on the façade, together with his comment Et cependant on en revient (and nonetheless one returns from it).  To hammer home the whimsical point that both he, Lisbonne, and the patrons of his establishment, do escape from prison eventually, Dante Alighieri’s famous words Voi che entrate lasciate ogni speranza (you who enter, abandon all hope), can be made out as well.

Buhot clearly dates his print November 1885 in the plate, just one month after the tavern opened.  This establishment, which was meant to entertain the public by giving the impression of being a jail, only lasted six months.  Patrons were served by “inmates” who carried around their ball in chain.  Beer was served in hollowed out balls as well, and patrons were given a certificate of release upon leaving the tavern.  Lisbonne was both interested in the success of his tavern, and in keeping the plight of the many Communards exiles in people’s minds.

bagne, bagnard, chain-gang, ball-in-chain prisoner

The margins in Buhot’s print show a castle-like dungeon; two inmates with their ball in hand, one serving a beer; an old bearded one-legged convict; a clawed dragon which likely refers to the claws which are compared to chains in the poem in the lower margin; a prison guard; Christ’s head and the whips used to torture him…  Everything in Buhot’s margins, including the poem, likely by Lisbonne, reminds the viewer of the hardship, torture and pain endured by Communards during their ten year exile.

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