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Jacques Gamelin

(1738–1803, Carcasonne)

Squelette de fantaisie (Seated Skeleton, Holding Staff in Right Hand). Etching. 24.2 x 28.5 cm. 1778. Baudicour 39; Inventaire du Fonds Français 12.

This eerie, yet artistically intriguing portrayal arose in connection with the collection of anatomical plates entitled Nouveau Recueil d’Osteologie and published in 1779. A skeleton sits on a stone bench in a barely furnished, crypt-like room. Its back is supported by a stone slab shrouded in drapery, while its long, bony legs are stretched out and its toes curled convulsively. In its right hand the cadaver holds a wooden staff, while the left hand gesticulates. The oppressive emptiness of the room, which is enlivened only by a stark diagonal shadow, reinforces the morbid character of the scene. Gamelin uses a simple, but differentiated and accurate etching technique, which heightens the monumental character of this expressive and arresting reminder of the vanity of human existence.

The biography of Jacques Gamelin reads like an adventure story punctuated by dramatic turning points. Initially a student at the Academy in Toulouse, he continued his training at the Académie royale in Paris in the years 1763/64 before moving to Rome, where he was appointed court painter to Pope Clement XIV and married a fine Venetian lady. In 1793, after stints in Toulouse and Montpellier, Gamelin embarked on a military career, despite being of an advanced age for such a step, and attained the rank of a capitaine du génie (Captain of Engineers) the following year. He became a painter of battles in which he had personally taken part. The artist spent the last years of his life as a professor of historical and portrait painting at the École Centrale in Carcasonne. However, the publication of a costly illustrated textbook of anatomy, the above-mentioned Nouveau Recueil d’Osteologie, exceeded Gamelin’s financial resources and ultimately led to his bankruptcy.

A very fine, differentiated impression with wide margins. Inscribed, probably by another hand, in pen: “Gravé par Gamelin”. Minor ageing, otherwise in very good condition.

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