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© David S. Shields

The Art Nouveau Belles of Leopold Reutlinger     Jul 23, '12 8:03 PM
by David for group historicalziegfeld #656

Leopold Reutlinger

The salmon cards--cabinet card portraits of the reigning beauties of the Opera Comique or the Follies Bergeres--or elegant full lengths of the reigning queens of opera Mary Garden and Lina Cavalieri--they were the last and most splendid manifestation of the European attempt to capture stage beauty in the cabinet card form.

The photographer was Leopold Reutlinger (1863-1897), third in the dynasty of Parisian photographers. Raised in Peru, he took Atelier Reutlinger over from his father, Emile in 1890, and immediately changed the focus of the firm from general civic and celebrity portraiture to beauty images. While his uncle Charles and his father had registered the extraordinary success that Jose Maria Mora in New York had with beauty portraits, and meditated on the transformation wrought in the fortunes of W & E Downey of London when Mrs. Langtry's portraits ignited a storm of interest, neither of the elder Reutlingers thought beauty a potent enough force to be the main support of a metropolitan image business.

Leopold, however, was an aesthete, a visual artist intoxicated with beauty, and he sensed that aestheticism was going to be the reigning ideal of 1890s Paris. He communed with the graphic artists and the theatrical costumers of fin de siecle Paris. He realized the greatest threat to his business lay with the magazine editors who jammed their pages with pictures of pretty women, offering a plentitude for the cost of a single cabinet card purchased from the stand of a Parisian newsdealer. He realized that he had to make his images more alluring, more stylish, more cherishable than the lower fidelity half tone reproductions in the journals.

He quickly evolved a style: low contrast gray and white tonality with a hint of red tinting , distinct silhouettes against backgrounds lacking detail, central placement of sitters in the pictorial field. The sitters were mostly beautiful. He preferred young women with long proportions, and his beauties looked forward to the svelte femmes moderns who people the Broadway stage after Irene Castle overcame the public inclination toward the chesty & hippy Gibson Girls.

Reutlinger's salmon beauty cards were the last successful series of cabinets sold in France. But before we are tempted to feel sorry for being the last champion standing at the end of an era, we should note that it was he who began the craze for the postcard as a celebrity publicity vehicle. He kept on staff numbers of art students who supplied sinuous biomorphic frames and borders for his stage beauties. There is a sense that the "Parisian Post Card" as a genre was his creation.

By contrast to the busy post-card images, the cabinet card portraits appear elegantly simple, indeed classical almost, particularly when the subject appears before a featureless background. The sitters, unless they are famous tragedians or opera singers, usually sported a single name. These are the most collectible body of performing arts imagery from the turn of the century from Europe.

While Mendelssohn and VanderWeyde in London supply pictorialist analogues to Reutlinger's portraits, no one in the United States seems a close equivalent. Belgian Aime Dupont had the same approach to tonality, but his opera singers seem imperious next to Reutlinger's erotic personalities. Burr McIntosh from the United States seems at times an Arts & Crafts photographer, pursuing another kind of aestheticism, yet displaying affinities with Leopold Reutlinger. But McIntosh's imagined worlds in his scenes suggest the republic of virtue, Reutlinger's is the garden of hedonism. David Shields

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