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St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness. Engraving and etching. 39 x 27.1 cm. (1629). Montaiglon 80; Inventaire du Fonds Français 84 I (of III). Watermark: Anchor in Circle.
An astonishing originality of invention and technical mastery are the outstanding features of the extensive printed œuvre of Claude Mellan, who has a good claim to being the most significant and individual French engraver of the 17th century. In Mellan’s creative cosmos traditional religious themes often undergo bizarre reformulations, as the example of our meditative John the Baptist clearly shows. What we see here is not a haggard, ascetic hermit, but a handsome youth who seems to have been taken from a painting by Caravaggio or Simon Vouet. The casual elegance of his pose, the play of the warm sunlight on his well-formed, youthful body and his pensive look create an impression of reverie. One feels an urge to inquire whether the young man is really lost in religious contemplation or whether his thoughts are not dwelling on more profane matters.
The print, which originates from a painting by the artist and dates to 1629, i.e. not long after Mellan’s arrival in Rome, established his reputation as an engraver. The dedication to Francesco Barberini, the powerful cardinal and patron of the arts, is an expression of this prestige. From a technical point of view this is the first engraving in which Mellan did the modelling of the body almost completely with the aid of slightly undulating parallel hatching, a practice that later became almost the artist’s trademark. With great virtuosity he has brought out the contrast between the luminous flesh tones and the dense vegetation of the dark cave. The patches of bright light on the ground at the front lend the scene an almost unearthly glow.
A splendid, sharp and contrasting early impression with thread margins around the platemark, before the date and before the title and the address of Ch. Bance in the lower text margin.