For such a prolific and multi-talented illustrator, it is remarkable that so little is known about Gaston Barret. We assume that he trained and worked in Paris, as from the mid-1940s to the late 70s his work was in constant demand by publishers based there. His earliest known works are from the early 1940s, so he must have come to illustration relatively late in life. In 1946 he illustrated Francis Carco’s Jésus-la-caille (Jesus the Quail) for Aux Editions du Livre, and a set of Marcel Pagnol novels for Editions Terres Latines.
Illustrated editions of Maupassant and Balzac, Zola and Hugo, Dickens and Flaubert followed in rapid sucession, but it was in 1950 that he was first commissioned to illustrate a specifically erotic title – Sade’s Justine, for Editions de la Vieille France. The Justine illustrations were fairly tame, but when Au Carquois d’Argent commissioned artwork for a limited edition of Mirabeau’s L’Adam lascif, Barret finally engaged his skills and imagination to produce what are arguably some of his best and most explicit illustrations.
Now known as a reliable and tasteful erotic artist, commissions followed for Mac Orlan’s Les dés pipés, ou Fanny Hill in 1951, Tallemant des Reaux’s Historiettes galantes in 1952, La vie privée du Maréchal duc de Richelieu in 1953, Louÿ’s Chansons de Bilitis in 1954, and Rabelais’ Gargantua in 1956.
Barret’s ability to adapt his style as needed is surely one of the main reasons his work remained in demand. By 1960 he was able to capture the look of the period for illustrations for the Greek classic Satyricon, commissioned for a limited edition by Editions du Baniyan, while his contributions to Gustave Droz’s erotic letter sequence Un été à la campagne and Maupassant’s La Maison Tellier are pure 1960s. He still hadn’t finished, going on to produce illustrations for Casanova and the Kama Sutra, as well as art volumes of Paris scenes and natural history.
To some extent Gaston Barret sacrificed originality for volume, but in his best work there is both imagination and creativity.