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The Catiline Conspiracy. Etching and engraving after Jean-Guillaume Moitte. 25.7 x 52.6 cm. 1792. Portalis-Béraldi 74; Inventaire du Fonds Français, Graveurs du Dix-Huitième Siècle, 12: 64, no. 155; exhibition catalogue Regency to Empire, p. 302, no. 109.
This frieze-type composition in pure Neoclassicist idiom testifies to the abrupt stylistic volte-face in the printed work of Jean-François Janinet, one of the great masters of French colour engraving. Janinet was the inventor of a multiple-plate full colour aquatint technique, and his first major work, the famous Portrait of Marie Antoinette (1777) in a gold-ornamented oval frame, is considered to be a technical masterpiece which laid the foundations of his fame (IFF 12:29, no. 56). Janinet worked exclusively after models by other artists, and his choice of pleasing and gallant themes fully corresponded to the artistic taste of the ancien régime.
All the more astonishing then is the severe stoicism of the present rare etching, which was created in Year One of the French Republic. The choice of subject, the Catiline Conspiracy – an episode in the history of the Roman Republic – may be seen as a subtle reference to the great domestic tensions which threatened the existence of the freshly constituted French Republic in 1792. A combined Austro-Prussian army had crossed the French border in order to free the royal family from captivity and to restore the monarchy, while the feuding between Girondins and Montagnards in the National Assembly was endangering the fragile political stability of the young Republic. Just as the legendary Marcus Tullius Cicero had valiantly foiled the attempted coup by the usurper Catilina, France too needed the leadership of a wise man to avert pending disaster.
Janinet’s Catiline Conspiracy stems from a design by the sculptor Jean-Guillaume Moitte (1746–1810), who also achieved artistic recognition for his drawn work, especially his frises à l’antique, which are executed in a highly refined formal vocabulary. Many of these compositions were diffused from the 1780s onwards by means of reproductive engravings. The frieze-type arrangement of the figures against a black background, which is inspired by Etruscan vase painting and the wall paintings of Pompeii, corresponds to a composition scheme that Moitte often used between about 1793 and 1803. Janinet’s technically superb engraving technique does full credit to the sophisticated draughtsmanship and to the purist refinement of line of Moitte’s design. Various instruments, such as double and triple etching needles and a coarse punch known as a mattoir, were used to produce the velvety black fond noir and the shaded areas, while the outlines of the figures, the interior appointments and details of clothing and objects were done in dry point. The scene is framed by an engraved frieze of lotus palms and an ornamental border (see exhibition catalogue Regency to Empire. French Printmaking 1715–1814, by Victor I. Carlson and John W. Ittmann (eds.), Baltimore-Boston-Minneapolis 1985, pp. 302–303).
A superb and sharp impression. Minor defects in the margins, otherwise in very fine condition.