77. Joseph-Marie Vien

Montpellier 1716 – 1809 Paris

Bacha de Caramanie; Le Moufti; Sultane Grecque, 1748

In his Mémoires, Vien devotes a lengthy passage to his life at the Académie de France in Rome – he was there from 1743 onwards – and the amusements engaged in by the pensionnaires, consummate fanciers of costume balls. For the Carnival in 1748, in particular: “We resolved to give a public reception for the French Ambassador […] Let us imagine, I told them, the celebration in a nation entirely foreign to the land we live in, and I suggested the Caravan of the great Lord of Mecca. This procession, I added, can provide the greatest effects; the gravity of the personages, the lavishness of the garments, the splendour of the gifts, […] the chariot dazzling with gold and blue upon which the Sultanas should be placed, their Asian finery […].”1 According to the artist, and confirmed by the Director’s correspondence,2 the masquerade produced the greatest impression on the Romans.

The engraved series that Vien dedicated, several months later, to Jean-François de Troy (1679-1752), director of the Académie de France in Rome, immortalised this ephemeral event, which he was involved in staging. The series, with its twenty-nine plates and a frontispiece,3 presents the portraits of Vien’s comrades posing in their lavish Oriental garb. This initiative had a famous precedent in the Chinese Masquerade by Jean-Baptiste-Marie Pierre (1714-1789) in 1735.4 The two artists chose a linear handling of the etching, but unlike Pierre who produced only a single plate, Vien proved more ambitious by designing a whole series. His great mastery of the line, flowing and resolute, as well as the subtlety of the half-tones achieved by hatchings and cross-hatchings, confer on his figures a definite authority – always blended with humour. Among them there are several particularly delightful ones, such as this figure of a Greek sultana personified by the painter Louis-Simon Tiersonnier (1713/18-1773),5 thus twice travestied. With women at the time not being admitted to compete for the Prix de Rome,6 it was up to the male pensionnaires to don the “Asian garb” of the sultanas during the festivity. Among the other spectacular figures, the Bacha de Caramanie is remarkable for his theatrical pose and terribilità; while the Moufti, immersed in twilight, draped in his long robe adorned with moon crescents, holding a heavy book, embodies the esoteric and chimerical dimension of an Orient interpreted by the European eighteenth century.

Meticulously prepared by highly finished drawings,7 the Caravan is much more than a mere recollection of a ‘slice of life’ at the Palazzo Mancini; it is also one of the artist’s most original achievements, undertaken at the end of his Roman stay. In evidence of its success, the series was re-edited twice: in 1768 by Ėtienne Fessard (1714-1777), then at an uncertain date by François Basan (1723-1797). MNG

1Transcription in Thomas W. Gaethgens and Jacques Lugand, Joseph-Marie Vien, Peintre du Roi (1716-1809), Paris 1988, pp. 287 ff., in particular p. 296.

2Ibid., p. 64.

3However, Portalis and Béraldi count thirty-two plates in the most complete state of the series, one of which is extremely rare; see Roger Portalis and Henri Béraldi, Les Graveurs du XVIIIe siècle, 3 vols., Paris 1880-1882, vol. 3, pp. 618-619.

4Victor I. Carlson and John Ittman, Regency to Empire, French Printmaking 1715-1814, Baltimore (Baltimore Museum of Art) and Minneapolis (Minneapolis Institute of Arts) 1984-1985, p. 106, cat. no. 21.

5His identity is given by an annotation on one of the studies connected with the masquerade, that belongs to a series probably executed by a comrade of Vien; see François Boucher, ‘Les dessins de Vien pour la Mascarade de 1748, à Rome’, Bulletin de la Société d’Histoire de l’Art Français, 1962, p. 72, no. 1.

6They would only be admitted much later, in 1903.

7According to ibid., several series of drawings are connected with the project. Two series notably featured in Vien’s posthumous sale, that was held in his house in Paris, 17 May 1809, nos. 143 and 144. Twenty-three autograph drawings are held today in Paris, Musée du Petit-Palais; for the drawings preparatory to our etchings, see inv. nos. DDUT1074, DDUT1077 and DDUT1089 (black and white chalk, on blue paper; respectively 425 × 320 mm, 465 × 320 mm and 325 × 455 mm); see http://parismuseescollections.paris.fr/fr/recherche/oeuvre/image. For the complete series see Gaethgens and Lugand 1988, op. cit. (note 1), nos. 18-50.