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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Pierre Didot the Elder (1761–1853)

Pierre Didot the Elder was among the third generation of a French publishing dynasty renowned for the impeccable beauty and quality of their books. The Didot firm embraced the highest standards of bookmaking, and its patrons included King Louis XVI and his brother, the future King Charles X. Many of their editions contained illustrations by leading printmakers of the time, such as Charles Nicolas Cochin II and Jean Michel Moreau the Younger, and the typeface they designed to print their texts was considered the vanguard of Neoclassical typography.

Pierre and his younger brother Firmin (1764–1836) took over the family business in 1789. Among their first projects was a supremely luxurious suite of the works of canonical authors from antiquity and France known as the “Louvre editions” because they were launched when the firm occupied a studio space in the Musée du Louvre. The distinction of this set of folios resides in its scale, abounding illustrations, and its consequentially exorbitant production costs. Though it was not a commercial success, these books endure as Pierre’s crowning achievement among the hundreds of editions he produced in his career, and easily the most significant illustrated set of books in the period.

Over the next two decades, Didot produced the works of Virgil (1798), Horace (1799), Jean Racine (1801–5), Jean de La Fontaine (1802), and Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1819), claiming a direct lineage from ancient Rome through modern France. Purchasing the highest quality wove paper from the factory at Annonay for the 250 copies of each volume, Didot printed the texts in a new typeface that his brother had designed exclusively for this project and commissioned contemporary artists to illustrate the books.

To bolster the grandiose claims of his publications, Didot hired the preeminent painter of the era, Jacques Louis David, to edit the illustrations. David designed five of the Virgil illustrations himself, though the final, published states of the prints are ascribed solely to his student, Baron François Gérard. The majority of the illustration commissions were given to members of David’s studio, such as Gérard and Anne Louis Girodet-Trioson, who were eager to please their editor and teacher. In one of the more obvious examples of student ambition, Girodet used David’s painting Andromache Mourning Hector (Musée du Louvre, Paris) as the basis for his image of Pallas in one of seven illustrations to Virgil (1996.567).

The 113 illustrations in Didot’s folio editions are as diverse as the 44 artists commissioned to design and engrave them. They can be categorized by two different formats. The first, and most often discussed, consists of the full-page illustrations for Virgil and Racine (58.635.1[2]); the second, illustrating Horace, La Fontaine, and Boileau, features smaller bands forming headpieces at the beginning of the texts to which they pertain (32.28; 67.703). In addition to their disparities of scale and space, the images employ a variety of strategies to illustrate the texts.

Designed by painters, a sculptor, and an architect, all of whom worked in a Neoclassical mode, the majority of the illustrations are situated in Roman spaces. The link between ancient forms and texts is established in the first installment, in which several of Charles Percier’s illustrations look like shallow reliefs, such as the example prefacing Horace’s second letter (32.28). This equivalence between image and text may be predictable in the Horace and Virgil volumes, but it is a consistent motif in the succeeding books as well. The nearly continuous use of classical settings in all the illustrations highlights the French authors’ reliance on ancient precedents and, more significantly, asserts an unbroken trajectory from the classical to the Neoclassical traditions in France.

In addition to the architectural settings and physical appearance of the figures, specific references to extant ancient sculptures abound in the imagery. For example, the sculpture in the niche behind the main figures of Antoine Denis Chaudet’s illustration to the fourth act of Racine’s Britannicus closely resembles a canonical sculpture, Cupid and Psyche, from the Capitoline Museum in Rome (58.635.1[1]). At the end of the eighteenth century, the statue was relocated to the Musée du Louvre, which at the time was called the Musée Central des Arts, thereby ascribing a contemporary inflection to the classical reference in Chaudet’s composition. For, while the reader/viewer might already know the sculpture as a famous object from antiquity, he could also recognize it as part of the current collections of the French national museum.

Ancient references are made contemporary in other ways as well. The headpiece for the ninth book of La Fontaine, for instance, depicts a sculptor’s workshop, where the well-known Seated Neptune is oriented to suggest a dialogue with the protagonist (67.703). Through this suggestion of anthropomorphism, Percier removes the ancient artwork from a long, unknown past and makes it an active and central participant in the scene. In a similar fashion, Girodet uses sculptural citations in his illustrations to Phaedra as a means to expand the reader/viewer’s interpretation of the text and complicate the image/text relationship in the book. Famous sculptures appear in the background of all five of his illustrations to the play, but one work is repeated three times: Neptune Holding a Trident, which derives from a bas-relief in the Vatican‘s collection, figures as a freestanding sculpture in Girodet’s illustrations to Acts 3, 4, and 5 (58.635.1[1]). Girodet’s repetition of the same form reminds the reader/viewer of Neptune’s significance in the text as an instigator of action, though not as an autonomous character with lines of speech.

A sophisticated and subtle engagement with the text pervades the illustrations in Didot’s editions, constituting an enduring statement about the French classical tradition. Gérard’s ghost image of Athena in his illustration to the fourth act of Iphigenia, for example, contradicts Racine’s narrative and refers instead to a similar scene in Homer’s Iliad, upon which the play is based (58.635.1[2]). By introducing a figure from the ancient source, Gérard closes the circle that Didot sought to establish between antiquity and the French tradition. Likewise, several of Percier’s illustrations to La Fontaine announce the fables in a synoptic manner, while simultaneously suggesting connections between those texts (67.703).

If Didot’s books establish the fundamentals of French literary and visual Neoclassicism at the turn of the nineteenth century, they also assert Neoclassicism’s exclusions. The eighteenth century features not once in these texts or images, eliminating Voltaire, Rousseau, and any painter of the Rococo from the repertoire. It is believed that David barred Pierre Paul Prud’hon’s imagery from the Racine project, because he associated Prud’hon’s work with an ancien régime aesthetic, even though Prud’hon had already begun the drawings for Andromache. The Metropolitan owns one of Prud’hon’s rejected drawings, which illustrates the fifth scene of the second act of Andromache (1999.348), and relates directly to the painting Prud’hon left incomplete at his death (25.110.14). Despite David’s objections, Didot retained Prud’hon’s frontispiece for the book, which depicts Racine being escorted to the Throne of Immortality by his genius and the three Muses associated with the types of literature he wrote: Melpomene (tragedy), Clio (history), and Thalia (comedy) (58.635.1[1]).

The illustrations to Didot’s luxury editions from the turn of the nineteenth century are not exclusively Neoclassical in the sense of referring to antiquity. Settings and styles are employed from the more recent French past, most notably in Nicolas Antoine Taunay’s images for Racine’s only comedy, which is set in a French seventeenth-century environment (58.635..1[1], views 5, 6, and 7). Taunay was known, and has been remembered, primarily for his genre paintings (1982.60.49), but these illustrations are among his most compelling compositions. Augustin Félix Fortin also utilizes a seventeenth-century context in his illustrations to Boileau’s mock-heroic poem, “The Lectern,” although with a much less compelling result, and similar Baroque settings appear in Percier’s illustrations to La Fontaine as well. Thus ultimately, what is being argued for in Didot’s famous editions is not an absolute, exclusionary definition of “Neoclassicism,” but a more fluid and varied rumination on French classicism.