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Louis Jean Desprez

(1743 Auxerre – 1804 Stockholm)

Vue de la Grotte de Polignano, appellée dans le Pays Grottae di Palazzo sur les bords de la Mer Adriatique, dans la Pouille. Pen and black ink and watercolour. 22.4 x 35.6 cm. Signed: „Des Prez del“, inscribed on the verso in pen and brown ink in the artist’s own hand: „Vue de la Grotte de Polignano / appellée dans le pays Grottae di Palazzo sur les bords / de la Mer Adriatique, dans la Pouille / Dessinée et Composée par Des Prez“.

In the bizarre and fanciful style that is very much his own, Desprez has portrayed a ceremonial banquet held in a huge grotto. The guests, dressed in exotic costumes, are gathered at a long, richly set table, around which servants are busily performing their duties; on the right, guards are passing away the time with a game of cards. The opening in the rock cave affords a view to the left of the outlines of a castle built on steep cliffs; a strongly foreshortened staircase links the castle with the grotto. An orchestra is playing with great verve on a terrace below, while a little further to the right a group of travellers is waiting to depart. The entire scene is peopled with countless spectators participating in the celebration from a distance. Everything radiates a pulsating vitality which cannot but enthral the beholder. Despite the pronounced stage-like design of the scene, Desprez drew his inspiration from a real location. The action takes place in the picturesque Grotta di Palazzo in the little village of Polignano a Mare in the province of Bari, where even today visitors can still dine in a top-class restaurant at the same spot. Desprez visited the town in the spring of 1778 when, together with Dominique Vivant Denon, Claude Louis Chatelet and Jean-Augustin Renard, he was collecting motifs for Saint Non’s Voyage Pittoresque de Naples et de Sicile (see B. H. Wiles, “An unpublished stage design by Desprez and its source: Polignano a Mare”, in: Festschrift Ulrich Middendorf, Berlin 1968, pp. 503–505). The sketches Desprez made on the spot were not used in the end, however, because the third volume of the Voyage, published in Paris in 1783, contains two engraved views of the Grotta di Palazzo based on drawings produced in situ by his travel companion Chatelet. Nonetheless, Desprez must have been immensely fascinated by this pictu­resque symbiosis of bizarre rock formations and theatrical architecture, because there are several versions of the same composition, all of which have an identical format, differing from each other only in matters of detail. A preparatory composition sketch in pen and grey ink is at the Royal Academy in Stockholm. Two variations of the final watercolour version are to be found at The Art Institute in Chicago and in the Philip L. Stone Collection in Winnetka, Illinois. The Worcester Art Museum has a qualitatively inferior replica drawn by a different artist.

The present work is the most detailed variation, in which Desprez has enriched the scene with a number of genre details, thus making the overall composition appear more integrated and cohesive. In contrast to the version in the Philip L. Stone Collection, but identical with the version in Chicago, the artist includes two elegantly dressed ladies in the left foreground who are walking away from the banquet. In contrast to the version at the Art Institute, however, Desprez depicts not just one but two dogs tucking into the remains of the meal and has added the silhouette of a monkey sat on the balustrade at the rear.

It can be assumed that Desprez had a stage design in mind when he composed the picture. However, as is often the case in his oeuvre, it has not proved possible to link the scene with a particular opera or stage performance. The artist probably produced the three known versions in Rome between 1779 and the spring of 1784. The same composition in an amended form was used during his early period in Sweden. Two stage designs for Ariadne on Naxos and Armida from 1786 and 1787 were clearly inspired by the scenery in Polignano. In both cases a similarly designed rock cave serves as the frame for the events on stage.

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