The illustrations of François-Louis Schmied
Born in Geneva in November of 1873, François-Louis Schmied was a French painter, wood engraver, illustrator and bookbinder of Swiss origin. He is considered a major artist of the Art Deco era, particularly for his work in the publishing field. Schmied established himself in Paris whee he later was naturalized. He is the father of engraver Théo Schmied, who directed his father’s workshop beginning in 1924.
François-Louis Schmied began his formal training at the Guillaume Le Bé School, named after the notable engraver and designer who specialized in Hebrew typefaces. Schmied next studied under Swiss painter and draftsman Barthélemy Menn who introduced the principles of plein air painting into Swiss art. Through his studies with Menn, Schmied became acquainted with such artists as Eugène Delacroix, Henri Rousseau, and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. The enlivening use of color by these artists made a lasting impression on the young Schmied who continued his studies under painter and wood engraver Alfred Martin.
In 1911, Schmied’s work was brought to the attention of one of the period’s most elite book clubs, Les Sociétés du Livre Contemporain. These French societies were comprised of the elite members of the country whose function was to sponsor the production of lavish, limited editions by outstanding authors and artists. Impressed with Schmied’s previous work, the club commissioned Schmied to collaborate as engraver and typographer with artist Paul Jouve on an illustrated version of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”. A painter, sculptor and illustrator, Jouve was most notable for his works of Africa’s animals.
“The Jungle Book”, like its medieval predecessors, took years of preparatory work. The project came to a halt with the outbreak of World War One; Schmied enlisted in the French Foreign Legion for his service. After being wounded at the Battle of Somme and suffering the loss of an eye, he returned to Paris to complete work on “The Jungle Book”. The volume was finally published in 1919 and won accolades from the French book world. Schmied’s reputation was assured and commissions began to arrive. Always a perfectionist, he never compromised his high technical standards in his search for each book’s perfect match of illustrations and text.
One of Schmied’s most tasking projects was the 1922 “Salonique, la Macédoine, L’Athos”. As printer and engraver, he was responsible for converting the pointillist-inspired paintings of Jean Goulden into forty-five woodcut engravings for printing. Schmied meticulously executed the illustrations with large areas composed entirely of dots and slashes. This work was followed in the same year with a commission from George Barbier, famous for his fashion illustrations. This collaboration produced two of Schmied’s best works “Les Chansons de Bilitis” and “Personnages de Comédie”, both published in 1922. The books embodied Barbier’s elegant Art Deco style with an exotic palette of sienna, teal blue, jet black and luminous gold, all printed accurately in color by Schmied.
François-Louis Schmied emerged as the leading Art Deco book designer with his 1924 “Daphné”. In order to draw the reader into the Byzantine world of the book’s hero, Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus, he used a bold typeface highlighted with strong initial letters. Schmied’s borders, vignettes, and tailpieces used an austere and geometrically abstract form to embellish the text. Rich somber colors and rigorous design in his full-page illustrations harmonized with all the other elements. This volume, together with the 1925 “Le Cantique des Cantiques”, are considered by collectors as the pinnacle of his career.
Schmied continued to design, print and publish several major volumes until the early 1930s. The ensuing Depression era began a chain of events that led to Schmied’s financial ruin, and ultimately to his demise. Luxury items, like Schmied’s books, were among the first commodities that lost their value in the depressed market. Although he tried to buy his books back to maintain their monetary worth, Schmied was caught in an economic downward spiral. By the mid-1930s, he had lost his workshop and his prize possession, his yacht La Beau Brune.
François-Louis Schmied’s friends in the government gave him support in the form of a minor commission at a desert outpost in Morocco, over two-thousand kilometers from his Paris home. Part of his duties was to help alleviate the misery of the people under his authority. In January of 1941, as a result of his ministrations to his public during an epidemic, François-Louis Schmied died of the plague.
Top Insert Image: François Louis Schmied, “Self Portrait”, 1904, Pencil and Charcoal on Paper
Second Inset Image: François Louis Schmied, “Bathers, Valleè du Draa, Morocco”, 1938, Tempera on Board, 40 x 19.5 cm, Private Collection
Third Insert Image: François Louis Schmied, “Le Vanneur”, 1936, Tempera on Paper on Masonite, 111 x 140.5 cm, Private Collection
Bottom Insert Image: François Louis Schmied, Illustration for Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”, Woodcut Engraving with Gold Highlights, 1919, Private Collection