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An Imaginary River Landscape with Ancient Buildings. Pen and point of brush and grey ink, watercolour. 21 x 42.5 cm. Monogrammed and dated: “DB / 1792.”
Jean-Jacques de Boissieu, the scion of a noble family from the Auvergne, lived and worked for most of his life in his native city of Lyon. In 1771 he was appointed Trésorier de France, a position which henceforth guaranteed him financial independence. De Boissieu was a wilful person whose wholehearted devotion to his art made him something of a recluse. In 1764/65 de Boissieu went on the Grand Tour to Italy, returning with a rich stock of landscape studies which would serve him as a source of inspiration for the rest of his days. The political upheavals of the French Revolution marked a dramatic turning point in de Boissieu’s life, though, for he lost both his position and his wealth. His artistic career did not suffer, however. He was subsequently active almost exclusively as a draughtsman and etcher, attending himself to the sale of his works, which circulated in a small, select circle of collectors and enthusiasts. Eschewing the prevalent art trends of his time, de Boissieu remained faithful to his own artistic idiom, which is characterised by a close affinity to nature and a subtle grasp of the mood of a landscape.
This charming watercolour is from de Boissieu’s late work; in terms of its thematic variety and technical mastery it constitutes the pinnacle of his art, so to speak. De Boissieu’s oeuvre consists for the most part of washed, point-of-brush drawings in grey and brown; his pictorially composed watercolours are therefore quite rare. Echoes of his journey to Italy blend harmoniously with the subtle, painterly rendering of his native surroundings. The broad river landscape is imbued with poetry and enlivened by countless anecdotal details. In the right foreground an old man holding a magnifying glass is trying to decipher an inscription on an ancient wall fragment; inscribed on an ivy-covered gravestone are the words Dis Manibus Sacrum. The Temple of the Sybil from Tivoli, set in the park landscape in the bottom left-hand corner of the picture, looks somewhat out of place. Sitting on a landing stage just to the right of centre is an artist flanked by several individuals watching him at work as he draws the wide open landscape in his sketchbook. On the river and the opposite bank people are going about their everyday work. The pink evening sky bathes the gentle landscape in a soft light, conjuring up an elegiac mood reminiscent of Claude Lorrain and Dutch 18th century masters such as Isaac de Moucheron.