George Barbier was a notable French illustrator of the early twentieth century, his career ranging from the early teens to the early '30s. His stylized, often intricate images reflect the end of the Victorian era, and Queen Victoria herself. Out with the staid, proper lifestyle. Fun had returned, erotic, decadent, in a world emerging from Victorian times and later, the Great War. Barbier's illustrations exemplify the Jazz Age. People, usually women, in high-fashion, at times fantastic outfits, though often largely out of those outfits. Lovers meeting, or young women awaiting such a meeting, are frequent subjects. Cherubs, dragons and such often appear in these images to enhance the fantasy of the times. Life was so pleasurable to those of high society in those wondrous days. Neither they nor Barbier would survive the Great Depression. He died in 1932 at age 50.
Barbier was also a costume designer for the theater and ballet. It was from those designs that he received his inspiration for his illustrations. He also did some writing, but that was certainly secondary to his reputation. Shapero Rare Books has issued a “catalogue,” actually a folder of loose sheets, headed Barbier. That is appropriate as Barbier issued several collections of illustrations in this loose format. Here are a few samples of his work, and they will take you back to an era the likes of which we have not seen since.
Barbier is most closely associated with the Gazette du Bon Ton. Art, Modes, et Frivolities (gazette of good style). Shapero describes this as “the greatest and the rarest of all the Art Deco fashion periodicals.” Edited by Lucien Vogel, it featured the latest styles from the fashion houses of France, in particular, and other European designers. Barbier was there to turn their designs into illustrations, lithe models dressed in the latest fashion few could afford. In today's prices, it cost $400 per year just to subscribe, assuring a small, but highly prosperous clientele. It was published from 1912-1925, and Shapero has an almost complete run, 67 of 69 issues, missing only #7 from 1924 and #10 from 1925. They contain 535 lithograph plates, 290 sketches, and numerous colored wood engravings by Barbier and other artists. Priced at £27,500 (British pounds or approximately $38,895 in U.S. dollars).
Next is Dessins sur les Danses de Vaslav Nijinksy (Designs on the dances of Vaslav Nijinsky), published in 1913. It contains eight pages of text in French by Francis de Miomandre, and 12 full-page color illustrations by George Barbier. Nijinksy is depicted in scenes from three ballets, Scherazade, Carnival, and L'Apres-midi d'un Faune. These were appropriate illustrations for Barbier as he also designed costumes for Nijinsky in his performances with the Russian Ballet. Shapero describes Barbier's artwork perfectly in a quoted comment, “the designs, although somewhat fantastic in treatment, do convey the impression produced by Nijinsky in his famous characters.” Barbier's illustrations have a fantastic quality, but Nijinsky's performances had the same attribute. He did much to revive the dying art of ballet in Europe, and recognition for male ballet dancers which was virtually nonexistent by then. A century removed, and probably no one living who saw him in his prime, Nijinsky remains the standard for dance. This is a limited first edition, no. 327 of 390 copies. £4,500 (US $6,365).
Now we have some theater costumes, Vingt-cinq Costumes pour le Theatre (Twenty-five costumes for the theater). This collection contains 25 tipped-in theatrical costume plates, featuring Anna Pavlova, Nijinsky's counterpart as the great female ballet lead at the time, and Paulette Duval, a French dancer and actress. It also includes a frontispiece portrait of Barbier by Charles Martin, a friend of Barbier and artist from a similar vein. In the Preface, Edmond Jaloux expresses great praise for the artist, “George Barbier is one of the most precious and significant artists of our time...when everything has turned to dust and ashes, a few of his watercolours and drawings will suffice to resuscitate spirit of the era in which we lived.” Offered is no. 69 of 275 copies of the first edition. £4,000 (US $5,658).
Fetes Galantes (gallant parties) is appropriate for the roaring 20s, and this was published in 1928, a year before the partying came to an end. This is one of 800 copies on vellum of 20 plates after Barbier. This one is a special copy. Bound in is an original, signed watercolor by Barbier heightened with gold. The image is of a woman in a spectacular eighteenth century dress holding a fan. She stands in front of some intricately designed wallpaper. £4,500 (US $6,365).
This is another work illustrated by Barbier, Poemes en Prose precedes d'une Petite Lettre sur les Mythes par Paul Valery (Poems in prose preceded by a little letter on myths by Paul Valery). The writer of the prose poem was Maurice de Guerin, one of the pioneers of this form of poetry. De Guerin was a passionate writer who infused his poems with nature and mythical elements. Barbier has provided illustrations of the mythical Centaur and Bacchante. Barbier's edition was published in 1928, almost a century after de Guerin died. The unlucky poet died in 1839 at the age of 28 before any of his works were published. This copy has been inscribed by Barbier (translated), “To Miss Violette Garth / These small deities of days past, already touched by the melancholy of today / With respectful compliments of the artist George Barbier / June 1928.” £7,500 (US $10,615).