Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 12, 2017
Greta Kaucher Les Jombert: Une famille de libraires parisiens dans l'Europe des Lumières (1680-1824) Geneva: Librarie Droz, 2015. 1592 pp.; 54 b/w ills. Paperback $129.24 (9782600018425 )

Historians of eighteenth-century art, architecture, science, and engineering will undoubtedly have typed out the name “Jombert” many times in their footnotes, for this family was the publisher of nearly a thousand titles between the late 1680s and early 1810s. In a remarkable gift not only to the history of the book, but also to the story of how a pan-European public sphere was formed in which artistic and architectural information was debated, Greta Kaucher has produced a comprehensive study of the Jombert publishing dynasty. Her expansive text is comprised of a rich biography of the family that outlines their professional and social standing chronologically over five generations, with a particular emphasis on their role in the fine arts, and concludes with a catalogue raisonné consisting of some 992 entries. While illustrations are limited and in black and white, they are well chosen and given over largely to Pierre-Charles Jombert, who effectively used his family’s accrued financial stability and social connections to become a successful academic artist in his own right.

Kaucher convincingly shifts our attention from the originators of ideas to those who facilitated their circulation and impact. The arc of the family’s fortunes from modest beginnings outside the trade to pinnacle of success, to eventual decline and diffusion of wealth in failed schemes in the post-revolutionary period, is similar to a number of families in the arts (notably the Huquiers and Oudrys) for which endogamous practices did not always ensure multigenerational success. Jean Jombert, son of a Parisian fruit seller, founded the family firm when he obtained a publishing license in 1686. His son, Claude, inherited the business in 1705 and in turn passed it to Jean’s grandson, Charles-Antoine, in 1735. At this date the firm advertised itself as “libraire du Roi pour l’artillerie et le génie” and had several hundred titles to its name. But it was Charles-Antoine who not only greatly expanded the business but also moved aggressively into art and architecture, probably due to his extremely fruitful, close friendship with Charles-Nicolas Cochin, the etcher, amateur, royal librarian, and a de facto advisor to the royal arts administration during the reign of Louis XV throughout the long absence of a premier peintre du roi.

Jombert and Cochin’s relationship is telling of a newfound publicness to eighteenth-century European art, given that such a central figure in the arts worked primarily as a draftsman and etcher rather than as a painter or sculptor, and also that he invested so heavily in his friendship with a leading publisher. Their first documented professional collaboration was also Cochin’s first book illustration and an important publication in the history of architecture: Jacques-François Blondel’s two-volume De la distribution des maisons de plaisance, et de la décoration des edifices en général (1737). During the late 1730s through 1770s, Charles-Antoine published new titles in art and architecture and reprinted publications such as Abraham Bosse’s De la manière de graver (1645) and Blondel’s Architecture françoise (1752–6), the plates of which he purchased from the Pierre-Jean Mariette sale in 1750. In the case of the important works by Bosse and a series of drawing manuals, republications were clearly executed in collaboration with Cochin. Following Charles-Antoine’s enormous successes, the firm passed to his son, Louis-Alexandre, and son-in-law, Louis Cellot, who would develop the Jomberts’ relationship with the publishing house Didot & Cie. by the early nineteenth century. Charles-Antoine’s son Pierre-Charles would not take up the family trade, but aspired to be a professional painter, perhaps under the spell of Cochin (who carried on a long affair with his mother, Charles-Antoine’s wife, Marie-Angélique Guéron [1716–1778], responsibly documented by Kaucher in word and image [497–513]). An independent chapter devoted to Pierre-Charles’s career is almost a stand-alone contribution for the history of painting. In 1772, with Cochin’s support, he won the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture’s grand prix (beating out none other than Jacques-Louis David 642) and traveled to Rome, where he seems to have been the intended recipient of Cochin’s missives published soon after as Lettres à un jeune artiste peintre, pensionnaire à l’Académie de France à Rome (1774).

Kaucher helpfully situates the Jombert family in overlapping intellectual and publishing worlds through sections and charts that highlight its professional collaborations and shared investments with other Parisian houses. Though she provides an in-depth account of all members of the Jombert family, Kaucher rightly focuses her energy on Charles-Antoine. This is just, not only given the family’s fortunes, but also because it positions Les Jombert for use by historians of eighteenth-century art and architecture. Charles-Antoine’s friendship with Cochin might have merited its own study, for surely it was in this dynamic that the family’s impact was made and, arguably, Cochin’s influence felt—not simply through the hundreds of titles published by the Jomberts in which Cochin’s decorative plates appeared, but also for the fact that in 1770 Charles-Antoine affectionately published a catalogue raisonné of his friend’s œuvre, from his large plates to his elusive, modestly scaled vignettes (the first of Charles-Antoine’s several pioneering catalogues raisonnés of printmakers). Cochin’s sensitive, handsome drawing of Charles-Antoine in profile (1763–70; private collection), etched by Augustin de Saint-Aubin, is also the face by which he is known today. Perhaps, however, Kaucher was correct to make this friendship a central but not exclusive key to understanding a far larger, more complex milieu. She carefully outlines Charles-Antoine’s pan-European networks, describing for example his role in helping Karl Heinrich von Heinecken, the keeper of the collections in Dresden, to realize his Dictionnaires des artistes (1778–90) (485–95). A particularly perceptive writer for La France littéraire seems to have understood it thus: “The intimate liaison that he [Charles-Antoine] had all his life with M. Cochin and several other artists of the first rank,” resulted in the conversations to which “we are indebted for the good works on these fine arts that he was able to bring into the light of day” (9).

Kaucher’s chronological approach, neatly organized into subsections, risks her not pursuing more interpretive lines of inquiry about social mobility and the peculiar hybrid identity of figures like Charles-Antoine: a man expert in mechanical trades, he facilitated more abstract, intellectual, and artistic inquiry. That said, the chronological march of Kaucher’s text helps ensure its utility. Between her subsections and detailed index, discrete pieces of information are easily located in an account nearly seven hundred pages long (not including the catalogue raisonné). Seeming to have intended her work as a reference rather than something necessarily read straight through, she tends to repeat factual information about titles or social or family relationships multiple times in the course of her text. The thoroughness with which Kaucher delves into the Jomberts’ wide-reaching world cannot but recall Christian Michel’s indispensible chronicle of its key extra-familial protagonist in Charles-Nicolas Cochin et l’art des Lumières (1993). But Michel’s approach in his massive study differs greatly: extremely nuanced in his portrayal of particular facets of this complex, prolific figure, his book’s episodic structure can make it difficult to locate individual pieces of information as he tries to tease out Cochin’s social, professional, and aesthetic positions. Indeed, in this sense, Charles-Nicolas Cochin et l’art des Lumières works best in dialogue with Michel’s earlier Charles-Nicolas Cochin et le livre illustré au XVIIIe siècle: Avec un catalogue raisonné des livres illustrés par Cochin, 17351790 (1987). Beyond the obvious—Michel’s inclusion of a catalogue raisonné, itself based directly on that penned by Charles-Antoine—this earlier study is far more in line with Kaucher’s approach. Like Michel’s, Kaucher’s catalogue raisonné is rich in detail, including the history of plates and humanizing, anecdotal references either from the popular press or from private correspondence. The Jombert catalogue raisonné is further enriched by the fact that (unlike most contemporaries) the family regularly issued stock lists, and Charles-Antoine’s son-in-law, Cellot, recorded print runs for the family’s publications in the key years 1759 to 1770. Unlike the Jomberts’ later associates, the Didots, the family never seems to have aspired for its publications to become sensuously printed objects. Indeed, when it issued the luxury edition of Jean de la Fontaine’s Fables choisies, mises en vers (1755–9) during a short period in which Charles-Antoine was both printer and publisher, the accompanying plates translated by Cochin from Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s drawings were coordinated by Desaint & Saillant, Durand. Pierre-Charles’s move to oil and Rome was, moreover, an implicit bid for artistic aspirations more ambitious—albeit less historically important—than those of his family.

Kaucher’s study demonstrates resoundingly how a history of the book can provide the material basis for reconstructing a social milieu with a direct bearing on other media. This seems particularly true in her depiction of a moment of transition in the arts between mechanical trades, learned through didactic manuals and more abstract aesthetic thought from republications of the art theorist Roger de Piles, to the latest works by Cochin. It is surely in the Jomberts making available to both their world and to ours such a wide swath of possibility that their contribution and Kaucher’s will remain crucial as documents of eighteenth-century art and architecture and their subsequent reception.

David Pullins
Associate Curator, Department of European Painting, The Metropolitan Museum of Art