A Midwest art dealer tells a story about striking gold in the print market by gambling on an artist who was out of fashion. Forty years ago the dealer purchased a lot of 200 prints by a French artist, Louis Icart (1888-1950), at $10 a piece. As the 1970s progressed and all things 1920s and ‘30s became new again, the dealer was able to sell the prints at $400 each. The profits enabled him to open his own gallery.
Nowadays the value of Icart prints has continued to climb, with many of the more common ones hitting $1,500 or more on the auction market. The appeal of Icart’s best-known prints stems from the unabashed flirtatiousness of the women depicted. They suggest sexuality but keep their clothes on and skirt eroticism.
Icart was one of the signature illustrators of Paris during the Jazz Age of the 1920s but his effervescent paintings and etchings owe relatively little to the geometric modernism of the prevailing Art Deco style. Although the famous Icart women usually sport hair cropped and bobbed in Roaring Twenties fashion, even when romping through mythological or historical scenes, Icart was drawn to the hedonistic whimsy of 18th century French painters such as Francois Boucher (1703-1770) and Jean Honore Fragonard (1732-1806). Like his forbearers, Icart’s most popular works are pretty and proud of it, featuring coquettish women in romanticized poses or settings. Some of Icart’s images may have been deliberately modeled after Fragonard.
Born in Toulouse and the eldest son of a banker, the young boy was encouraged to follow his father’s ambitions in business. He brought home high grades in math but became more interested in theater and the arts. Performing small parts in school plays, Icart was exposed to the drama, music, decorative costume and festive set design that would later inspire his stylistic paintings. Many of his works were drawn from opera, literature and theater with titles such as Don Juan, Scheherazade, Lady of the Camellias and Madame Butterfly.
In 1907 a specialty postcard company in Paris employed him to hand color photographs and drawings of pretty girls for export. They were naughty mademoiselles whose pictures were devoured by male audiences in foreign countries. While at the firm he learned the craft of etching and developed a sense for the enormous market for mass produced images of stylish women. Before long he became an illustrator for Paris haute couture houses, depicting women in the latest fashions at a time when Paris was the world’s undisputed capital of fashion design. Called to the army during World War I, he found time to execute posters extolling patriotism and the homeland.
After the war he came into his own. Paris had long been the City of Light but in the Roaring Twenties, the city on the Seine burned with renewed intensity. Culture of all sorts thrived, the cafes were loud with American jazz and the city became, more than ever, a mecca for artists and writers. Icart captured the loose and scintillating mood of the moment in etchings that told little stories about seductive women at the top of their game. They were like playful skits in a comic opera, beautifully costumed and set against lavish backdrops. Each picture was a narrative, a frame from an early iteration of “Sex and the City.”
There were other sides to Icart, artifacts whose rarity endows them with greater value to collectors. Icart illustrated many limited editions of books, often pushing his images deeper into erotica. He continued to dabble in purely commercial art, designing menus, for instance. He also worked in oils, capturing the bright landscapes of Italy or dark mysteries along the nocturnal canals of Venice. He favored reds and golds, daubed with soft, Impressionistic strokes.
Later, during the French defeat at the onset of World War II, he painted fiercely brushed representations of refugees fleeing the Nazi advance. He survived the German occupation with his life but not his career. The U.S. had long been a primary market for his work, with a Louis Icart Society in New York City operating as the chief American gallery and dealer for his etchings. With the war spilling over into commercial routes of the Atlantic, the artist was severed from his audience and when the war was over, Icart found that Americans had turned their backs on his decorative whimsies. The man of fashion was no longer fashionable.
The interest in Icart rebounded in the aftermath of the 1960s as a wave of nostalgia swept through segments of the market, bestowing renewed value on many forgotten artists and artisans of the early 20th century.
Prices for Icart’s etchings have remained strong but within reach of the vigilant collector. Leda and the Swan (1934), a drypoint etching, sold at Christie’s London house in April 2007 for $1,600 (including buyer’s premium). The more risque Erotic Scenes from La nuit et la moment (1946), an aquatint etching, sold at William Doyle in New York in May 2007 for $2,250 (including buyer’s premium). Speed II (1933), a popular Deco-inspired image, sold at auction in Tokyo in March 2007 for $2,133 (including buyer’s premium). A considerably higher return was realized with Two Beauties (1931), a drypoint etching in vivid colors that sold at auction in Tokyo in April 2007 for $26,976 (including buyer’s premium).
Although his etchings also can be found and continue to show up at antique stores, galleries and estate sales, Icart’s oils are a rarity outside the auction venue. At auction, sale prices perform well. Carnaval a Venise, a 76-inch by 51-inch vibrantly colored oil on canvas sold at auction in Lyon in June 2004 for $51,605 (including buyer’s premium). A Versailles, a smaller sized 13-inch by 16-inch oil on canvas sold at Sotheby’s New York for $13,000 (including buyer’s premium). The rise and fall and return of Icart shows that what goes around comes around, in art as well as in fashion.