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Louis Joseph Masquelier

(1741 Cysoing near Lille – 1811 Paris)

Head of an old Woman with her Eyes Closed, her Hair Covered by a Headscarf. Drypoint, roulette and mattoir. 45.3 x 32.2 cm. Not in Le Blanc or Portalis-Béraldi, probably unrecorded.

This extremely expressive, enigmatic portrait of an old woman is evidently completely absent from the descriptive literature. It is the work of the engraver, Louis Joseph Masquelier. Trained by Jacques Philippe Le Bas, he was better known for his book vignettes and conventional reproductive engravings after artists such as Baudoin and Monnet as well as for his engravings after 17th century Dutch masters. Among Masquelier’s principal works are his engravings for Jean-Baptiste Wicar’s four volumes of Tableaux, Statues, Bas-reliefs et Camées de la Galerie de Florence et du Palais Pitti, which appeared in 1789.

This imposing, almost otherworldly female portrait is remark­able in many respects. The puristically austere, neo-classical idiom is radically different from the formal style previously employed by the artist, which reveals strong Rococo elements. Also worthy of note is the technical execution of the engraving, which can certainly be regarded as experimental in character. A drypoint has been used to draw sparse, clear outlines, while the plate has been roughened with the help of a roulette and a mattoir, a coarse punch with a rasp-like face, thus producing evocative tonal effects similar to those found in aquatint. Par­ticularly striking is the contrast between the finely gradated and varied shades of grey in the woman’s face and upper body and the dark black tone of the background. The artist’s source of inspiration also raises a few question marks. The woman’s gloomy features with her stoically closed eyes and firmly pinch­ed lips are attributes of a radical aesthetic fully in keeping with the ideals of French revolutionary art. Did the artist take an ancient Roman portrait sculpture from the Republican period as his model? The many unanswered questions notwithstand­ing, this print is of the utmost fascination and extremely unusual in both technical and thematic terms. Indeed, it may well be a unique experiment by the artist.

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