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Louis Jean Desprez

(1743 Auxerre – 1804 Stockholm)

A richly adorned cartouche with a medallion portrait of King Louis XV and the attributes of the arts and sciences. Etching. 24.9 x 36.2 cm. Circa 1770. Wollin 18.

This eminently rare and intelligently treated print is an early work by Louis Jean Desprez, a highly talented and original printmaker and draughtsman. As early as 1755, at the tender age of twelve, he was apprenticed to no less than Charles-Nicolas Cochin, who taught him the different printmaking techniques. From about 1763 Desprez was a student of Jacques-François Blondel at the Académie Royale d'Architecture. In 1766 he was employed as a drawing teacher at the École Militaire in Paris. Desprez decided against a military career, however, and from 1768 studied under the architect, Charles de Wailly, who aroused his interest in the theatre and with whom he produced stage decorations.

The present work stems from the artist’s years in Paris and probably dates to around 1770. While it is the work of a young man, it essentially contains everything that made up the ori­ginality of the later Desprez: a masterly lightness of stroke coupled with an exuberant, idiosyncratic creative imagination and a sure instinct for pithy characterisation. The print has been executed in a light, vibrant and spirited etching technique which ensures that the cartouche, decorated with bulging acanthus scrolls and garlands, does not appear monumental and static but is positively bursting with vitality. Numerous attributes, artistically integrated into the lush ornaments, form a symbolic relationship with the portrait of the ruler which crowns the decorative border. Scientific instruments, folios, music instruments and a palette with brushes bear witness to the blossoming of sciences, music and the arts under Louis XV. The standards and trophies symbolise military successes, while the cornucopia, brimming over with golden coins, signal affluence and economic prosperity. Very typical of Desprez is the way in which he has lightly sketched in the fine plumes of smoke at the top which curl up out of antique-style smoke pots. The ornamental border was probably intended as a decorative frame for a court festival programme. An old inscription on the mount says that Desprez produced the work on the occasion of the marriage of Crown Prince Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette, Archduchess of Austria, on 16 May 1770 in Versailles.

Wollin was able to verify only one other impression of the etching. Formerly kept in the collection of Catherine the Great it is now the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Wollin probably made a mistake during the cataloguing. Number 19 in his catalogue of works refers to a medallion portrait of Louis XV, which is unknown to him but is in all likelihood identical with the present sheet. A superb, inky impression with thread margins. Minor ageing, otherwise in excellent condition.

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