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François-Philippe Charpentier

(1734–1817, Blois)

Vue du Temple de Salomon et de ses Parvis. Lavis etching, partially with sepia wash, after Charles de Wailly. 47.7 x 66 cm. 1766. Unrecorded.

This extremely evocative print shows a bird’s-eye view of Solomon’s Temple as imaged by the artist, whose use of stark diagonal foreshortening enables him to achieve an intriguing spatial effect. Charpentier’s idea for the composition derives from the work of the renowned French architect, town planner and stage designer, Charles de Wailly (1730–1798), one of the foremost representatives of early French classicism, whose designs are distinguished by their impetuous imaginative power. Wailly, who was trained by Jean-Laurent Legeay, Jacques-François Blondel and Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni, lived and worked from 1754 to 1757 in Rome, where he was greatly influenced by the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Along with other Frenchmen such as Charles Michel-Ange Challe, Charles-Louis Clérisseau, Jean-Charles Delafosse, Louis-Jean Desprez and Louis-Joseph Le Lorrain, Wailly was a member of the so-called Piranésiens, a group artists from the Académie de France who frequented Piranesi’s nearby printer’s work­­shop in Palazzo Mancini on Via del Corso and engaged in a lively artistic exchange with the revered Italian master.

Wailly’s imaginary reconstruction of the mighty temple complex was reproduced in a smaller, slightly modified version which was probably etched by an anonymous artist. The sole impression of this version to have survived is now in the col­lection of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris (inv. no. Est 3007; see exhibition catalogue Piranèse et les Français, Rome-Dijon-Paris 1976, p. 137, no. 69, fig. p. 139). Wailly’s iconography is based in part on the reconstruction of ancient buildings by Fischer von Erlach in his Entwurff einer Historischen Architektur published in 1721, to which new design elements were added. The extensive temple complex is entered by a partially subterranean flight of stairs which leads across a circular forecourt flanked by strictly geometrical, classical-style structures. Wailly summons all his powers of artistic imagination in creat­ing a vast panorama peopled by a myriad of diminutive figures.

The viewer’s gaze wanders across successive horizontal planes and terraces out into the far distance, where the sacred object as such can be espied on the horizon – a round temple resembling a synthesis between the Pantheon and the Mausoleum of Augustus. The formal rigour and the consistently symmetrical arrangement of the individual structures betray the stylistic principles of neoclassicism, while the colossal dimensions of the project anticipate the revolutionary architecture of Wailly’s earlier fellow-student, Étienne-Louis Boullée.

The present version by François-Philippe Charpentier may be unique. The etching is not included in the Inventaire du Fonds Français and we were unable to find any other impression in a public collection. Charpentier, who held the title of Graveur et Mécanicien du Roi, is an interesting artistic figure who has unjustly been forgotten. As early as the 1750s he experimented with aquatint in order to imitate the effect of wash drawings. The earliest known print in which he employed this new technique is dated 1756, whereas there is no evidence before 1768 of its use by Jean Baptiste Le Prince, who is generally regarded as its inventor. At all events, the recognition of his invention earned Charpentier an apartment in the Louvre, and contemporary sources report that his lavis technique was simpler and more practicable.

Our print is distinguished by its free and painterly approach. The sweeping washes produce a striking chiaroscuro effect in the foreground, while the scene evaporates towards the horizon in a vague haziness. Very revealing is Charpentier’s engraved inscription, which says that artist primarily intended to present the sublime magnificence of Solomon’s Temple rather than lose his way in vague descriptions (“Dans le Dessein que l’on donne de ce Temple, on ne s’est proposé que d’en représenter l’immen­sité, sans s’assujetir à suivre des descriptions vagues qui sans offrir plus de verité à l'Esprit , auroient présenté aux yeux bien moin de Magnificence”).

A superb, contrasting impression with fine thread margins. Minor ageing and traces of handling, otherwise in excellent condition.

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