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Louis Jean Desprez

(1743 Auxerre – 1804 Stockholm)

View of the Piazza del Mercato in Catania. Pen and black ink and watercolour, framing line in pen and brown ink. 15 x 25 cm. Wollin 1933, p. 66. no. 22b.

This lively, astutely observed view of the marketplace in Catania arose in connection with Abbé de Saint-Non’s ambitious project entitled Voyage pittoresque de Naples et de Sicile. This five-volume work in folio format, published between 1781 and 1786 and containing some four hundred engraved plates, provided an encyclopaedic overview of the most important sights in Italy. This was without doubt a magnum opus in the era of the Grand Tour. Led by Dominique Vivant Denon, a group of prominent artists, including Louis François Cassas, Claude-Louis Châtelet, Honoré Fragonard und Hubert Robert, travelled through the region in 1777/78 producing on-the-spot engraving models as they went. Louis-Jean Desprez joined the group as an illustrator. One of its most productive members, he drew numerous architectural vedute and townscapes, documented the excavations in Pompeii and went to Sicily and Malta as part of the project. Having finally returned to Rome in January 1779, the artist made a total of 136 watercolour preliminary drawings for the Voyage pittoresque.

It is indicative of Desprez’ artistic disposition that his vedute never appear prosaic or focus exclusively on topographical precision. On the contrary, these works are distinguished almost without exception by their artistic verve and originality. Desprez loves to enhance what he has observed by means of scurrilous, picturesque details, which inject considerable vitality into his depictions. Our small, delicate watercolour drawing is remarkable for its intriguing composition. The precision of the architectural details and the dramatic foreshortening of the perspective illustrate Desprez’ training as a stage designer and architect. Numerous little figures with billowing coat tails rush across the square as if propelled by some restless energy. There are some delightful details, such as a market stall beneath the colonnades in the middle ground, where a woman and her child are stood and other passers-by are engaged in conversation. Despite the microscopically small format the scene has a remarkable visual succinctness. The façade of the Baroque Cathedral of Sant’Agata wrapped in a delicate sfumato at the rear end of the street has been rendered with equal mastery.

This watercolour was used as a design for an engraving by Pierre-Gabriel Berthault which, compared with the original, is astonishingly dry and conventional (see Petra Lamers, Il viaggio nel Sud del Abbé de Saint-Non, Naples 1992, p. 254, nos. 250, 250b). From the collection of the Marquis de Chennevières, Hôtel Drouot, 5–6 May 1898.

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