Bécat, Paul-Émile (1885-1960)
As the illustrator of ninety three books Paul-Émile Bécat was nothing short of one of the most prolific book illustrators ever. Based in Paris during those years when the finely produced and illustrated collectors editions of well known erotic titles were still popular, his skill and reliablilty assured him of ongoing commissions. His style is distinctive and his work easily recognised. He nearly always used the method of drypoint, which is to work straight onto the copper plate without firstly coating it with wax. Sometimes these drypoints were coloured. The more luxurious of the limited edition publications would include a number of volumes that contained extra sets of the drypoints, usually in black and white and sometimes sepia. On the whole his illustrations would be upon a separate page to the text. These very collectable publications were beautifully printed and produced and would be provided within a protective case and numbered up to several hundred.
As a young man Bécat made a good start as an artist. Having studied at l’Ecole de Beaux-Arts under Gabriel Ferrier and Francois Fleming, he exhibited at the Salon de Paris in 1913 as a painter and won the first prize in the Prix de Rome in 1920 at the age of thirty-five. At this time he was specialising in portraits, often of French writers, so his later artistic pre-occupation with the human figure was an easy development. He was to become, in his illustrations, a master of drawing the body and clearly had a special pleasure and ability in depicting the female nude.
Bécat had a considerable interest in the continent of Africa and travelled there in the 1920s and 30s. As well as prizes for African-related work this led to one of his best known commissions, the illustrations to Rene Maran’s semi-autobiographical work, set in West Africa, ‘Batouala’ in 1947.
He married a fellow artist, Marie Monnier in 1928. This placed him in a very interesting, independent and creative artistic and literary circle as Marie’s sister, Adrienne Monnier was the first woman to open a book shop in Paris – ‘La Maison des Amis de Livres’. She was to go on, with her lover, the American Sylvia Beach, to run the ‘Shakespeare and Company English Language Bookstore’ that still exists in Paris and is now over a hunderd years old. Both of these establishments were gathering paces for great names in literature from France and abroad.
Paul-Émile Bécat’s illustrative work was of a consistantly high standard. The sheer quantity of his output indicates the skillfull ease which allowed the speedy production necessary. He was one of those who had the natural gift for showing the human body and its movements in a realistic manner and given the nature of commissions, often with very beautiful images. A favourite of ours is (Click here) Les Amours de Psyche et de Cupidon‘ ((1955 with text by Jean de La Fontaine) where we see Bécat at his most voluptuous and romantic. Though Psyche was one of his final works we would also suggest that there is a freshness and certainly a more explicit erotic content in the earliest works. One such is Pierre Louys’ (Click here) Histoire du Roi Gonsalve et des Douze Princesses (1935). One of his most explicit and well known sets comes from around that period, the highly sought after, self-published ‘Huit Images avec leur Texte’ (1932).
William Rose for Talisman Fine Art February 2020