Spontaneity, experimentation, and whimsy are some of the hallmarks that distinguish the etchings made in eighteenth-century France. It was a time when the practice gained favor across many social groups as an easily accessible art form, akin to drawing. Beyond the sphere of professional printmakers, who earned their livelihoods by reproducing the work of others, there were members of the art world—painters, sculptors, and architects, as well as art collectors—who had little to no training in etching but were attracted to the novelty of the pursuit. Some dabbled; others embarked on a sustained exploration of the medium. Occasionally, these “nonprofessional” printmakers earned income from their work, but more often their etchings were exchanged as gifts, outside the normal channels of the marketplace. Indeed, the friendships forged during this period between artists and the wealthy collector-scholars known as amateurs gave rise to considerable artistic innovation.
Learning to Etch
In the artistic hierarchies of eighteenth-century France, painters were accorded the most prestige. They received no official training in printmaking, which at the time was considered a separate, less elevated, and less creative specialty. And yet surviving works make clear that many painters (as well as sculptors and architects) did try their hand at the medium. Some were introduced to the technique early in their careers, employed by collectors or print publishers who appreciated the freedom of an “untrained” hand. Such was the case with Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), who on a few occasions collaborated with professional printmakers to assist in creating printed reproductions of his paintings. Although his experience with the technique was limited, he wielded the etching needle in a quivering but lively manner, as seen in the first state of the print after his Recruits Going to Join the Regiment, ca. 1715–16 (2006.43). Only a few impressions (Art Institute of Chicago) were made of this etching before Henri Simon Thomassin reworked it for mass production, supplementing, while largely obscuring, Watteau’s delicate lines with heavier engraved lines, adding shadow and contrast. Shortly after Watteau’s death, his friend and collector Jean de Jullienne (1686–1766) hired François Boucher (1703–1770), at that point a struggling young artist, to make etchings after Watteau’s chalk drawings (The Cleveland Museum of Art) for the same reason: he appreciated Boucher’s quick and facile manner with the etching needle. The rudiments of the technique could also be passed from master to student in the context of the artist’s studio. In 1778, Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) decided to introduce his young sister-in-law to the process as part of her artistic training. Under his tutelage, she translated a number of his drawn compositions into etching, often choosing charming subjects involving children and animals, such as The Child and the Bulldog (2011.279). Most painters who experimented with etching approached the medium in a straightforward way, using an etching needle to draw into the ground coating a copper plate as if drawing with a pen on paper. In rare cases, however, an artist might discover a true gift for etching, imaginatively pushing the medium to achieve personal visions rich in atmosphere and texture. For Louis Jean Desprez (1743–1804), it was the recently invented technique of aquatint, with its grainy, time-worn patina that enabled him to create such atmospheric prints as Tomb with Death Enthroned as a Sphinx (2012.189).
Selling Etchings in Eighteenth-Century France
The realms of the professional and nonprofessional printmaker, though distinct, did overlap to some degree. Painters who chose to make etchings as an adjunct activity might embrace the marketing techniques of the professional, not just for the income, but also for the publicity. Their prints could be announced in journals and sold either directly from their studios or by a publisher or print dealer. Additionally, artists could package their prints in suites or recueils (collections) to conform to collecting trends; inscribe verses or flowery dedications below their images to further enhance their popular appeal; or broaden their repertoire by exploring the world of ornament or book illustration. Early in the century, Claude Gillot (1673–1722) exploited such opportunities for expanding the dissemination and influence of his work. His designs for book illustration, even on a small scale (34.15), embodied his quirky and stylish sense of humor. Toward the end of the ancien régime, Jean Jacques Lagrenée (1739–1821) used the format of a recueil of ornament prints to promote his association with the latest stylistic trends, even learning to combine two colors of ink to emulate the newly fashionable style of ancient vases (1999.2).
Etching in the Eternal City
An essential chapter of the story of French etching in the eighteenth century took place not in Paris but in Rome, where the most promising young painters, sculptors, and architects lived together at the French Academy in Rome, then housed in the Palazzo Mancini. Supported by the crown and thus freed from the need to earn a living, they enjoyed, in some ways, greater freedoms than their counterparts back in France, where traditional divisions between artistic specialties meant, for instance, that painters were not offered institutional instruction in the techniques of printmaking. In Rome, such strictures were loosened, and an onsite printing press further facilitated a culture of experimentation. Prints were made in Rome for many reasons, although rarely to be sold. Some celebrated the practices and achievements of the academy and its students, especially their participation in local celebrations, an activity thought to promote the glory of France. Etching offered students the ability to replicate their own paintings and thus build, from afar, their reputations at home. Printmaking was also a means to cultivate bonds with visiting collectors and amateurs, some of whom, like Claude Henri Watelet (1718–1786), brought with them an already well-developed interest in the medium (2012.384). For certain young artists in Rome, etching was simply youthful play; for others, it would become a passion that lasted well beyond their student years. Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre (1714–1789) was among those young painters who found they possessed an incredible facility with the etching needle. Made shortly after his arrival in Rome in 1735, The Chinese Masquerade (53.600.4449), evokes the sparkling festivities of Carnival, when the French art students joined the procession in their faux-Chinese finery.
Collaborations and Shared Sensibilities
The friendships between artists and amateurs, wealthy collectors who practiced and theorized about art, grew to become a significant part of artistic culture in eighteenth-century France as mutually beneficial relationships of patronage and collaboration. The exploration of etching within these rarefied milieus, whether in Rome or in Paris, fostered a new approach to the medium, not as a means to simply reproduce another artist’s work, but as a distinct form of artistic expression. Artists and amateurs had in common, even developed together, an admiration for the sketchlike prints created by Rembrandt and Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione. This appreciation can be seen in patterns of collecting, in published writings, and in the etchings themselves. Watelet, one of the most influential collectors and writers on printmaking in Enlightenment Paris, etched a portrait of himself examining a print by the light of a window (Sterling and Francine Clark Institute) as an homage to Rembrandt’s portrait of Jan Six (29.107.22). Jean Jacques de Boissieu (1736–1810), another amateur enamored of Rembrandt’s prints, imitated the Dutch artist’s format of the sketch plate, where several unrelated quick sketches would be done on the same copper plate, a display of virtuosity and playfulness (67.793.25). References to these seventeenth-century artists and others like them, in terms of both subject matter and style, became widespread in the etchings made in Paris, but they are references best considered as homage or appropriation, and as such, embody a new perspective on the nature of originality and artistic production.