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Allegory of Ignorance Trying to Kill Inspiration. Pen and black ink, grey wash. 21.8 x 26.5 cm. Circa 1770–80.
The deeper meaning of this allegory, drawn fluidly and with great expertise, cannot be completely deciphered. A kneeling man dressed in armour and hidden behind a planked fence aims his rifle at a pretty young woman; he has an evil appearance and devil’s ears poke out from under his helmet. An alarmed peacock shrieks a warning, but the woman draped in a light, antique gown pays no heed to the danger. Standing in a classical contrapposto posture, she holds a crayon in her right hand, while her left hand rests on a large drawing book. Her transfigured upward gaze indicates that she is to be seen as the female personification of the fine arts or of artistic inspiration. Claude-Louis Desrais, the author of the drawing, evidently wished to illustrate the eternal conflict between sublime artistic aspirations and the public response to them. The ignorance and incomprehension of the general public can sound the death knell for every form of artistic practice.
Desrais studied under Francesco Casanova, whose influence prompted him to specialise in historical and genre scenes. He preferred pen and ink drawings in watercolour or gouache, the energetic and fluid manner of which are reminiscent of the style of his teacher Casanova. Desrais was also one of the most sought-after fashion illustrators of the latter third of the 18th century. His small-format depictions of fashion and scenes of gallantry were mostly used to illustrate almanacs and were re-engraved by artists such as Alix, Blanchard and Le Beau. After the Revolution broke out, Desrais was probably forced to alter his style and devoted his artistic attention to contemporary events. This is exemplified by his illustrations for the Traité des causes revolutionnaires which he exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1793.