The bearded figure of architect Paul Hankar, Belgium's grandfather of Art Nouveau, has bent over his worktable for more than a century, ever since his artist friend Adolphe Crespin drew what would become a beloved image of the profession.
The 1890s lithograph captures the birth of the new art movement in the swirl of smoke from Hankar's cigarette as well as in its glowing apricot hues. The scene is rendered especially meaningful by the inclusion of architectural tools. Hankar (1859-1901) is framed by a T-square, ruler, and plumb line, and triangles form the pattern of inlay on his desk. For a backdrop, the artist drew a honeycomb of hexagons overprinted with bees, an allusion to the Hankar studio as a hive of activity.
"It's extremely precise; it uses all the different elements of architecture," says Greg Yaneff of Yaneff International Gallery, an internet dealer in vintage posters. "That's what made the poster famous. It's just become such a memorable image."
The poster was created to advertise the architect's studio at 63 rue de Facqz. Hankar was one of the major Art Nouveau practitioners in Brussels. His buildings, like those of Victor Horta, marked the city's early adoption of the first international decorative style of the modern age. Trained as a sculptor, he took the decorative "whiplash" line to graceful extremes in ironwork. His architectural portfolio includes his own residence, a pioneering example of the Art Nouveau style, at 71 rue de Facqz and the Palacio de Chávarri in Bilbao, Spain.
Hankar's unrealized project for a "city of artists" may be his most important legacy as an architect. His concept for a creative cooperative ultimately inspired the artists of the Secession movement in Vienna, who established the Wiener Werkstatte.
Crespin's original watercolor of Hankar resides in the collection of the Musee d'Ixelles in Brussels. The poster has had several lives. A full-sized series makes rare appearances at auction. A slightly smaller vintage version, known as "Les Maitre de L'Affiches," established the poster's perennial collectibility in the 1890s.
"People got excited about the colors," Yaneff says of the poster movement. "They would peel the posters off the walls of Paris and Brussels." As for the Crespin, "it's the ultimate image for an architect."
The price of history: $12,000 for a lithograph from the original printing. Reproductions from the 1920s can be found for $20.