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Louis Jean Desprez

(1743 Auxerre – 1804 Stockholm)

The Great Eruption of Vesuvius. Watercolours and gouache over an outline etching by Francesco Piranesi. Signed in black ink: “Desprez”, inscribed: “Première eruption du Vésuve ....” in the artist’s own hand, inscribed in the lower right: “se vend chez ...Piranesi”. 69.5 x 47.4 cm. Circa 1781. Wollin 4.

The present view comes from the set of vedute from the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily issued jointly by Louis Jean Desprez and Francesco Piranesi. The prospectus published by the two artists in July 1781 announced the ambitious figure of forty-eight vedute, of which only ten ultimately appeared. Piranesi’s so-called “dessins coloriés” – the ambiguity of the term was no doubt deliberate – are large-format outline etchings after designs by his older colleague Desprez, which were carefully and individually coloured by the latter with water colour and gouache.

The spectacular eruption of Vesuvius on 8 August 1779 was an event which attracted considerable attention and was portrayed by numerous artists; it was one in a long series of eruptions of varying intensity that took place during the 18th century. The portrayal of this magnificent, dramatic natural phenomenon was tailor-made for an artist like Desprez with his unique talent for theatrical presentation. The spectacle is viewed from a slightly raised vantage point on the other side of the little river Sebeto. Utter confusion reigns. Gripped with panic, large numbers of people are moving in an endless procession towards the no longer existing bridge Ponte della Maddalena, which was one of the most important access points to Naples from the south. Desprez depicts the turbulent events in great detail and with an unerring sense of theatricality. We can see fully loaded carts and carriages, shepherds in flight with their herds of sheep and goats and innumerable little figures hurrying along in a frantic attempt to save their belongings. In the middle of the bridge worshippers are praying in front of a statue of S. Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples; in the left foreground sick people and little children are being hoisted into a barge. A pale moon, barely visible in the dark blue night sky, shines wanly over the eerie scene. The artist’s main interest, however, is in a realistic rendering of the massive explosion which lights up the sky and parts of the surrounding countryside and takes up two-thirds of the picture. The volcano spews a huge fireball of glowing rock, ash and dust from its innermost core into the atmosphere, while burning lava flows unchecked down the slopes of Vesuvius.

The artist demonstrates tremendous skill in this gripping and stirring depiction of the terrifying natural spectacle, in the face of which man appears completely helpless and totally insignificant. A superb impression, the colours unusually luminous and fresh. Minor ageing verso, otherwise in very good condition.

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