84. Anonymous (English School, eighteenth century)

Memento Mori (The Dead Soldier), c. 1780

The painting1 rendered by this print is still an unsolved mystery. Long held to be a Velázquez – it entered the British collections under this name2 –, and today believed to be the work of an unidentified Neapolitan Baroque painter, it is graced with a timeless prestige. This composition drew the attention of a great many artists in the nineteenth century, particularly when it was about to change hands on the occasion of the Pourtalès sale.3 Our mezzotint, in all likelihood the work of a late eighteenth-century English artist, confirms that the fascination for this work goes way back, probably to the time when it was still held in the Spanish royal collections.4

By taking a few liberties with the original work, the engraver proved himself an inspired interpreter. He omitted the second skull, which in the painting is beside the youth’s head, along the right side. The bubbles – symbols of the evanescence of human life – in the foreground of the painting are also missing in the print. The branch upon which the oil lamp is hanging, its flame only recently extinguished, does not appear explicitly in the print, which gives the impression of a hovering, ghostlike lamp. Lastly, the artist chose a squarer format and eliminated almost entirely the few landscape elements present in the painting. The utterly bare composition of our print emphasises the universal significance of this memento mori.

Mezzotint, or mezzotinta, was invented in the early 1640s (see cat. no. 74). Unlike the other engraving techniques, which go from light to dark, this one proceeds in the reverse, the engraver beginning to work up his plate with a rocker – a steel blade with small teeth –, giving it a rough texture that will retain the ink. To produce the variety of shades ranging from grey to white, the artist then applies a burnisher and a scraper to gradually flatten certain parts of the plate, for the ink to adhere only partially.5 This process creates the impression of seeing the motif surface, which stands out against a deep and velvety black ground. The evocative power of this print owes a great deal to the convergence of form and meaning, the artist utilising the most effective technique for conveying his pictorial intention.

In the eighteenth century mezzotint became such a specialty of Cross-Channel engravers that it was soon dubbed “the English manner”. The author of this print, an excellent technician, subtly blending his palette of greys, carved out the volumes and created a stunning chiaroscuro. In associating mezzotint with etching, he was able to very distinctly outline the edges of the lamp, the armour plates and the wavy contours of the sword hilt. Our print, which is extremely rare, is probably one of the first impressions of the plate, before lettering. MNG

1Italian School (Naples?), A Dead Soldier, 1630s, London, National Gallery, inv. no. NG741 (oil on canvas; 104.8 × 167 cm); see Michael Levey, National Gallery Catalogues. The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Italian Schools, London 1971, pp. 148-149; and http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/research/a-dead-soldier.

2After its purchase at the Pourtalès sale, Paris, hôtel Pourtalès, 27 March 1865 and following days, no. 205 (‘Velasquez: […] This handsome painting, whose subject is not known, formerly adorned one of the palaces of the King of Spain, where it was designated (no one knows why) under the title Dead Roland Orlando muerto’).

3Manet was probably thinking of this composition – that he knew through a photo or a print – when he painted his Dead Toreador, c. 1864, Washington, National Gallery of Art, inv. no. 1942.9.40 (oil on canvas; 75.9 × 153.3 cm); see Sandra Orienti, The Complete Paintings of Manet, London 1970, p. 93; and https://www.nga.gov/Collection/collection-search.html; as Thoré-Burger remarked in his commentary on the Salon of 1864 where the work was on exhibit (Salons de W. Burger. 1861 à 1868, Paris 1870, pp. 137-138). The following year, the Belgian etcher Léopold Flameng (1831-1911), a friend of Thoré-Burger, engraved the Pourtalès collection painting in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts of 1865, under the traditional title Dead Roland. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam holds a copy of this etching, inv. no. RP-P-1910-3218.

4According to J.J. Dubois, Description des tableaux... de M. le Comte de Pourtalès-Gorgier, Paris 1841, p. 53, whose words are repeated in the entry of the Pourtalès sale catalogue (see note 2).

5Nadine Rogeaux, ‘Wallerant Vaillant (1623-1677). Premier spécialiste de la gravure en manière noire’, Nouvelles de l’Estampe 177 (2001), p. 21.