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Johan Frederik Clemens

(1748 Gollnow – 1831 Copenhagen)

Le Sort des Artistes. Etching and engraving. 17.5 x 22.8 cm. 1786. Not in Nagler or Le Blanc, Leo Swane, J.F. Clemens: Biografi samt Fortegnelse over hans Kobber­stik, Copenhagen 1929, 221 III (of IV).

This depiction of “Le Sort des Artistes”, satirical in intent and full of derisive scorn, has its roots in a work by the neoclassical Danish painter, Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard (1743–1809), and expresses the contempt felt by the artist for the ignorance of the general public. An excited group of wildly gesticulating figures has gathered around a painting exhibited on an easel; they are holding forth on the work displayed and pointing critically at the painting. Midas with his donkey’s ears, the personification of stupidity, and the hovering embodiment of envy both point to supposed errors in the painting. Observers with the heads of pigs and sheep stand idly by in the background, while a goose cackles excitedly. The artist, meanwhile, has retreated behind the picture and holds his hands over his ears to avoid listening to the critics ridiculing his work. On the left Minerva, the Roman patron goddess of the arts, appears baffled and observes the scene with a pensive look on her face. Abildgaard’s original, which Johan Frederik Clemens has brilliantly translated to the print medium, offers a socially critical satire which has lost none of its validity even today. This rare print is distinguished by its intricate, highly differentiated technique.

Johan Frederik Clemens, who hailed from Germany, was one of the most successful engravers of his time. Having been trained by Johann Martin Preisler, he spent several years studying in Paris, Geneva, Berlin and London. In Paris, where Clemens stayed from 1773–77, he was greatly influenced by the elegant French style and enjoyed the patronage of Johann Georg Wille. After returning to Copenhagen, Clemens was appointed court engraver in 1779. Another journey abroad in 1788 took him to Berlin, where he stayed for four years and became close friends with such famous artists as Johann Gottfried Schadow, Christian Bernhard Rode and Daniel Chodowiecki. In 1786 he was made a member in absentia of the Copenhagen Academy, later becoming a well respected and influential representative of this institution.  

A superb, strong and contrasting impression with thread margins around the distinct platemark, before the final addition of the artist’s names. Minor ageing, otherwise in excellent con­dition. From the collection of Benjamin Wolff (1790 Copen­hagen – 1866 Engelholm, Lugt 420).

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