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Louis Jean Desprez

(1743 Auxerre – 1804 Stockholm)

Sola Experientia Vera Medicamina Docet (Tis only experience that teaches proper remedies). Coloured aquatint etching on ivory-coloured laid paper. 27.8 x 45.6 cm. 1789.

This bizarre-looking print was unknown to Nils Wollin, the author of the catalogue of prints by and after Louis Jean Desprez and has great rarity value. It is a variant of a slightly later aquatint etching, Le Grand docteur Pantalon explique la science de la médecine, from a cycle of four satirical portrayals on the medical profession (Wollin 34–37) that Desprez produced in Sweden between 1790 and 1794. In the first printing state the set was executed as a pure etching, while the second was reworked with aquatint.

Our etching was published for the first time by Richard Godfrey in 1986, who in his essay referred to a print in the National Congress Library in Washington (see "Louis-Jean Desprez", Print Quarterly, 1986, vol. III, p. 238–240). The print bears the address of the London publisher William Holland and the date 1789. No definitive answer can be given to the question of whether the etching was done by Desprez himself or by a local artist working from his design. An attribution to the rather obscure draughtsman and etcher Frederick George Byron, a cousin of the poet Lord Byron, has been suggested. In September 1789 Desprez had left Stockholm for London, where he was to stay until spring 1790, working on several stage projects. The subject of this etching may have been prompted by the popular theatrical performances the artist saw in London. Medical caricatures were very popular among practitioners of the other fine arts, too, on account of their earthy yet subliminally erotic subject matter, reaching their apogee in the printed œuvre of such artists as Hogarth, Rowlandson and Gillray. It is to be assumed that the nonconformist Desprez, who was a capable businessman, wanted to test the receptiveness of the English market to this kind of caricature.

We see a procession of strange personages moving in the direction of a man who is seated on a commode answering a call of nature and morosely contemplating an evil-smelling liquid in a laboratory glass he is holding in his hand. Behind him in a long ermine-caped robe stands a quack doctor beseechingly reading a magic formula aloud. The charlatan’s retinue consists of two pierrots bearing huge candles and, behind them, a lackey with a sword holding the long train of his robe. A group of three pierrots armed with enormous rectal syringes and standing stiffly to attention bring up the rear of this curious procession. Desprez used the same iconography for the aquatint etching he made shortly afterwards in Sweden, which constitutes the opening scene of the four medical caricatures.

It is thanks to the researches of the theatrical historian Carl Olof Gierow that we now know so much about the circumstances in which this set of etchings came into existence. They are in fact scenes from a comedy written by Desprez and entitled L’Eruption du Vulcan which received its premiere in Gothenburg in 1790. Desprez’s burlesque humour was evidently not to everyone’s taste, as some of the more explicit passages fell victim to the censorship of Gothenburg’s theatre director. Thus one piquant scene, in which the hero’s wife was given an enema, was cut on the grounds that "au troisième acte il y a bien assez de clystère"! The irrepressible Desprez got his own back by depicting some of the censored scenes in the set of etchings under discussion, thus making them accessible to a wider public (see exhibition catalogue Louis Jean Desprez. 1734–1804. Centre Culturel Suédois, Paris, 1974, pp. 22–23; Ragnar von Holten, "Desprez graveur original", exhibition catalogue La Chimère de Monsieur Desprez, Musée du Louvre, Paris 1994, pp. 179–190).

A very fine impression with margins around the platemark. The print has been reworked in places with watercolour and heightened with gold. The paper is slightly foxed and yellowed; minor ageing, otherwise in very good condition.

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