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This review will examine the exhibition of French prints at the Getty Research Institute from June to September 2015, and its companion volume, A Kingdom of Images: French Prints in the Age of Louis XIV. There is some divergence between the contents of the exhibition and the book, which is not strictly speaking a catalogue: the grouping of subjects in the exhibition differs somewhat from the arrangement in the volume, while some images in the exhibition are not featured in the book, and vice versa. Together they offer a broad spectrum of prints, elegantly presented in the exhibition and beautifully reproduced in the volume, which also has an extensive bibliography and biographical notes on the artists. The introduction is made up of sections by the editors and three other specialists (Thomas Gaehtgens, Maxime Préaud, and Véronique Meyer) that analyze the artists’ production and their varied audiences during the reign of the Sun King. The prints in the exhibition were accompanied by notes that identify their authors and situate them in their social and political context. The editors and the curators are to be congratulated for mobilizing the rich resources of the Getty Research Institute and the Bibliothèque nationale de France to display a series of images otherwise inaccessible to the general public, creating a visual feast of images that illuminates a critical moment in the history of printmaking.
What strikes one first is the extraordinary skill displayed here by the artists working in the two printmaking techniques, etching and engraving. (Mezzotint was rarely used in France, and by this time woodcuts had been largely superseded by copper-plate prints.) These two techniques, which entailed either etching a plate with acid or engraving it with a burin, or combining the two by first etching and then engraving the plate, are clearly explained in the sections of the introduction by Vanessa Selbach and Rémi Mathis on printmaking and its practitioners. The works presented here clearly demonstrate how France—or rather Paris—had become the center of European printmaking by the middle of the seventeenth century. Examples of the Parisian printmakers’ technical bravura abound: Pierre Lepautre’s splendid elevation of the church of Les Invalides (a very big print, 129 by 78 cm., on three sheets; no. 18 in the book); Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer’s exquisite flower-piece (no. 36); François de Poilly’s moving Crucifixion, after the painting by Philippe de Champaigne (no. 71); Dumesnil’s extraordinary trompe l’oeil of news sheets, engravings, and playing cards taped to a notice board, showing the last battles in the War of Spanish Succession and the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 (no. 106).
The level of technical and compositional skill in these works was due, in the first place, to the immigration of a handful of Flemish engravers in the early seventeenth century who set up shop in Paris. Printmaking in the seventeenth century was almost entirely a Parisian affair; there were few outposts in the provinces. With the advent of Louis XIV this nascent craft was transformed and expanded, as Préaud and Mathis explain in the introduction. Native-born French artists now predominated, although Flemings continued to be drawn to Paris. The printmakers and sellers formed a distinct social group linked by marriages and shared business interests, clustered in their shops along a section of the Rue Saint-Jacques. They did not form a guild, and so were not bound by regulations that might have limited their creativity. The king’s workaholic minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, portrayed by Pierre Louis van Schuppen (no. 61), and his talented artistic adviser, Charles Le Brun, turned the new art of printmaking into an arm of the state propaganda machine. To this end, in pursuit of what today is called “soft power,” they employed the cultural resources of the Royal Academy, the luxury manufacture of the Gobelins, the collections in the Cabinet du Roi, and the king’s Printing House (Imprimerie Royale) to support the printmakers. Perhaps the crowning achievement of their efforts was a series of albums of prints published between 1670 and 1679 depicting the spectacular festivals held at Versailles between 1662 and 1674, with open-air banquets, plays by Molière, ballets, and fireworks (nos. 97 and 97.1).
These magnificent albums were designed as diplomatic gifts to arouse the envy and emulation of foreign courts and to proclaim the king’s glory far and wide. As his publicists would have it, the Sun King had made France the greatest power in Europe (the great Asian empires did not figure in their calculus) and had brought peace and prosperity to his subjects. The Parisian printmakers benefited from this royal patronage, which supplemented their regular market of fanciers and collectors, described in the introduction by Meyer and Peter Fuhring: the biggest collector of all, the abbé Michel de Marolles, amassed 262 bound volumes of prints by his death in 1681. But very little is still known about both the collectors and the several generations of printmakers working during Louis XIV’s reign; much further research is required, a highly specialized task, using the papers of the notaries who handled their affairs.
Another impression one gains from this rich selection of images is the variety both of their subject matter and of the audiences for which they were intended. At the top of the scale are highly finished works produced for discerning aristocratic patrons, like Robert Nanteuil’s magnificent portrait of the king, engraved in 1676 (no. 59), which was strategically placed to greet visitors as they entered the Getty exhibition. Besides producing portraits of the high and mighty or flattering depictions of the king’s heroic deeds, some artists specialized in illustrating the latest court fashions in dress along with the luxuries produced by the royal manufactures and the best Parisian craftsmen. Two designs for silver teapots, perhaps by Pierre Masson (no. 40), suggest how prints could direct public taste: among the social elite, tea-drinking was just coming into fashion (the tea came from China, as did the porcelain cups from which it was drunk). These elegant teapots and the other ornaments and decorations publicized in prints, including furniture pieces by the great designer André-Charles Boulle (no. 32), show how the latest novelties were brought to the attention of dedicated followers of fashion, like the couple shopping for fabrics in the etching by Jean Lepautre (no. 91) or Nicolas Guérard’s satirical half-male, half-female figure tricked out in the very latest finery (no. 88.1).
A little lower down the scale comes a series of prints, many of them by highly accomplished artists, aimed at a cultivated middle-class audience. Some were reproductions of famous paintings—including masterpieces in the royal collections—which would decorate their purchaser’s house. Many depicted devotional subjects: an outstanding example is the forbidding Vanitas of skulls and skeletons by Michel Moisin (no. 80). Yet others depicted scenes from everyday life, often tendentiously moralistic, like the woman selling fish to a well-dressed gentleman by an unknown artist (no. 87)—what exactly is she selling? Then there are landscapes and city views, including many of Paris such as Nicolas Guérard’s etching of the bustling traffic on the Pont-Neuf (no. 26). Versailles and its gardens of course figured prominently in the printmakers’ offerings. So did depictions of current events, which served as both reportage and commemoration, with the focus on the king and his triumphs. He appears in his customary allegorical guise as Apollo or Hercules or implicitly as Alexander the Great in the engravings after Le Brun’s paintings by Gérard Edelinck (no. 5) and Girard Audran (no. 6). (A section of the introduction by Louis Marchesano details what is known of these two important artists and their later critical fortunes.) We see the king with his troops at the siege of Maastricht in 1673 (no. 99), although we should remember that he did not personally direct operations, wisely leaving this to his generals. Both the Prince de Condé and Marshal Turenne, portrayed by Antoine Masson (nos. 60 and 64), and the great siege engineer Marshal Vauban (no. 67), portrayed by Louis Bernard, appear in both the exhibition and the book. Printmakers also devoted a great deal of attention to the elaborate ceremonies that punctuated the life of the court—coronations, funerals, marriages and births, and the arrival of foreign embassies; the cavalcade of Persian envoys in 1715 (no. 105) is an example of the latter. The artists’ intention was to provide a permanent record of the pomp and grandeur of these events, eternalizing the ephemeral and perpetuating the king’s glory for all time.
At the lower end of the scale are the popular prints, unskillfully made and often dashed off hurriedly in response to an event, such as the engraving of the king’s entry to Paris with his new bride in 1660 (item 1 in the exhibition; not in the book). These offer a useful contrast to the polished execution and refined imagery of the leading printmakers. Some were for entertainment, such as an unknown printmaker’s rebus of events for 1715 (no. 108). A particularly striking example of this genre is the crude engraving of the destruction of the Huguenot Temple at Charenton on the outskirts of Paris after the king revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and banned Protestant worship (no. 70). A monstrous three-headed figure representing the devil advances on the temple as a magistrate reads out the edict and workmen demolish it. The execution is coarse, but the polemical point is brutally clear.
Colbert died in 1683 and Le Brun in 1690. The artistic institutions they had directed lived on, but under increasingly adverse conditions. In the latter part of his long reign the Sun King’s luster was clouded by wars against much of the rest of Europe, by the death of his son and grandson (the heirs to the throne), by terrible famines, and by crushing taxation that exacerbated economic decline. A sign of the times is the print by an unknown artist of the charitable distribution of the “the king’s bread” to a crowd of desperate Parisians in the terrible year of 1693 (no. 107). Worse was to follow in the “Great Winter” of 1708–9, and by 1713 the kingdom was bankrupt, exhausted by decades of war. But the artistic apparatus Colbert had built was strong enough to survive. French printmaking, which he had so carefully fostered, would prosper and flourish through the coming century.
Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles