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Jean-Jacques de Boissieu

(1736–1810, Lyon)

A Wide, Hilly Landscape with the Ruins of a Fortress on a Hill and Staffage Figures in the Foreground. Brush and gray ink with gray wash. 14.4 x 22.5 cm. Signed and dated at upper left: De Boissieu 1783.

Jean-Jacques de Boissieu, born into a noble family from the ­Auvergne, lived and worked for most of his life in his native town of Lyon. In 1771 Boissieu was appointed treasurer of France, a position that finally gave him financial security. After studying under the history painter Charles Frontier, Boissieu lived between 1762 and 1764 in Paris, where he became friends with such leading artists of his time as Joseph Vernet, Johann Georg Wille, and Jean-Baptiste Greuze. He also had contact with patrons and ­collectors like Pierre-Jean Mariette and Claude-Henri Watelet. However, Boissieu never seems to have been influenced by the spirit of Rococo, any more than by the later vogue for Neoclassicism. During the years 1764–1765 Boissieu made a Grand Tour of Italy with his patron, François Alexandre Duc de la Rochefoucauld, returning with a large number of landscape studies that would serve as inspiration for the rest of his career.

The political upheavals of the French Revolution represented a dramatic turning point in Boissieu’s life and resulted in the loss of his post and source of income. However, his artistic career did not suffer. At the time, Boissieu was working almost exclusively as a draftsman and printmaker, personally overseeing the distribution of his artwork that remained in demand from a small, select circle of collectors and art lovers. Working independently from the chief artistic trends of his time, Boissieu followed his own artistic ­language, one characterized by the direct observation of nature combined with a refined sense for both atmosphere and light.

The present sheet is a characteristic example of Boissieu’s mature style. The hilly landscape, illuminated by a bright clear light, is reminiscent of the Roman Campagna. Three repoussoir figures in the foreground enliven the scene while avoiding a picturesque genrelike quality. A few carefully applied brushstrokes and a ­remarkably differentiated wash form the figures of a peasant on horseback and a young woman with a child, carrying a bundle of grass under her arm.

Boissieu’s technique here is meticulous and highly developed. The artist’s precise definition of form characterizes his stylistic language. He establishes the details of the vegetation and the shadows on the bushes and foliage in the foreground with the tip of a very fine brush. Toward the middle ground and the horizon his approach becomes softer and more painterly. The area is defined by various shades of gray, and the white of the paper ­suggests shimmering spots of light.

Boissieu’s draftsmanship was inspired by Dutch landscape ­drawings of the seventeenth century. The luminous power and delicate brushwork of his sheets establish him as a legitimate heir of such Dutch Italianists as Andries and Jan Both, Jan Asselyn, and Jan Baptist Weenix.

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