top of page


    Pen & ink with watercolour & wash

    Diameter 18 cm 




    I found out Clérisseau…in whom tho’there is no guile, Yet there is the utmost knowledge of Architecture, of perspective, and of Designing and Colouring I ever Saw, or had any conception of; He rais’d my Ideas, He created emulation and fire in my Breast. I wish’d above all to learn his manner, to have him with me at Rome, to Study close with him and to purchase of his works…’


    (Robert Adam to his brother James, 19th February 1755)



    The present drawing is likely the source of the only known hand-coloured etching which Clérisseau produced in his lengthy career: the print is in reverse of our sheet, with classical soldiers positioned to the foreground and a slightly enlarged perspective, revealing a further room to the left [1]. Examples of the print can be found in the collections of the Hermitage, St Petersburg (see image 2 above, inv. no. ОР-2454) and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (acc. no. 3663B).




    Clérisseau was born in Paris and studied there under Germaine Boffrand, an architectural draughtsman. At just 25 years old, Clérisseau won the foremost architectural prize in France, the Prix de Rome, and so travelled to the French Academy in Rome (by then housed in the Villa Medici) to take up residence as a pensionnaire. He arrived in 1749 and began to study under Giovanni Paolo Pannini, the great painter of architectural capricci, soon befriending two other renowned architectural draughtsmen, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, and Claude-Joseph Vernet. Clérisseau remained in Rome for eighteen years, becoming an authority on antique Roman architecture, undertaking his own professional commissions, including the famous 'ruin room' at the Trinita dei Monti convent, as well as teaching and acting as an artistic cicerone for visitors. These comprised a series of fellow winners of the Prix de Rome, as well as French and British Grand Tourists, including some of the leading contemporary exponents of British neoclassicism, such as William Chambers and Robert and James Adam.


    For part of the 1750s, Clérisseau and Robert Adam shared lodgings in the Casa Guarnieri, near to the Spanish Steps. This was arguably one of the most important periods during the man who would become one of Britain’s most renowned architects' career. In his correspondence from this time, Adam mentions how Clérisseau suggested that he first learn to draw and memorise a plethora of ornamental motifs, often from Clérisseau’s own designs, before attempting full-scale architectural drawings and designs of his own. Both Clérisseau and Adam’s drawings from that time are largely rendered in pencil, pen, and watercolour, and are either capricci or visual records of architecture, fragments, and ornamental motifs from the buildings they encountered throughout Italy. On occasion, Clérisseau’s deftly-managed distortions of perspective, so as to show a piece of architecture to its best advantage, can be seen in Adam’s work too. These drawings show Clérisseau’s characteristic mode of depicting architecture in solid lines of ink, but complement these with hazy watercolour backgrounds and imagined background topographies.



    In 1757 Clérisseau accompanied Robert Adam to Spalatro, Dalmatia (now Split, Croatia) for five weeks, in order to survey the ruins of the Palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian for publication. Following Robert’s departure from Italy, Clérisseau supervised the production of the engravings this series, titled Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro… (1764). Upon publication, Clérisseau received no credit for any of his work, though many of the expedition drawings finally selected for the engraving which he oversaw himself are thought to have been by Clérisseau himself rather than Adam or the other accompanying draughtsmen. 


    Despite this misadventure with Adam, Clérisseau returned to Paris in 1767 a hugely respected artist in his own right. From the French capital, he cultivated a list of eminent clients, among whom one of the foremost was the Empress Catherine the Great, who commissioned designs for a house and a triumphal bridge from the artist and purchased several dozen drawings and watercolours by him. Such was her admiration for Clérisseau, the Russian Empress even bestowed on him the title Premier Architecte de Sa Majestée Impériale and made him an honorary member of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. Another of Clérisseau's most famous clients came to him in 1785, when he was approached by Thomas Jefferson (then the United States Minister to France) to design the Virginia State Capitol, although in reality the Virginia State Capitol as it was actually built is thought to owe more to Jefferson himself than to Clérisseau.


    As time went on, Clerisseau’s influence drew a broad circle of similarly-inclined neoclassical architects into his orbit, and his influence on subsequent generations was considerable. An important commission from this latter period, in 1775, was the interiors for the Hôtel Grimod de La Reynière, in what is now the Place de la Concorde. Clerisseau’s work there, executed in partnership with Étienne de La Vallée, was the first decorative scheme in Europe to have been directly inspired by the recent archaeological discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Although his own actual architectural output was reasonably limited, it is generally agreed that through his teaching and influence, Clérisseau became one of the most important exponents of eighteenth-century neoclassical architecture on the continent.

    • NOTES

      [1] Cf. Charles-Louis Clerisseau: dessins du musee de l'Ermitage (exhib. cat.), Musee de Louvre (1995), no.59

    bottom of page