JEAN-BAPTISTE DESCAMPS (1715-1791)
AN ACADEMIC STUDY OF A SEATED MALE NUDE
Signed in pen & ink l.r. J B Descamps
Red chalks on grey paper heightened with white
45 x 54 cm | 71.5 x 81.5 cm (Framed)
Private collection, Southwest England
Descamps was born in Dunkirk in 1715, on the northern coast of the country. Though born in France, Descamps’ native tongue was in fact Flemish, and it “is abundantly clear that he regarded himself as a fleming” (1). This bilinguality and dual-nationality would be invaluable resources for his career: he trained first in Antwerp, before studying briefly in Paris. He settled in Rouen in 1740, where he remained until his death and taught at the drawing schools of the Rouen Academie.
Descamps is chiefly remembered today as a biographer of artists, thanks to his La Vie des peintres flamands, allemands et hollandais (published in four volumes between 1753-1763). Whether this was the reason behind his election to the Académie royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris is not known, though his career as an artist played second fiddle to that as an art historian from around 1738 onwards. Although he won both recognition and status, his focus on Northern art was perhaps an unusual one for an Academician in Paris, as the Academie promoted French art above all (understandably), and Italian art also as the foremost schools. Descamps almost certainly did not aim his publication at this group however, as there was another demographic within France which showed a burgeoning interest in the arts of the Low Countries: collectors and younger, less-established artists.
His La Vie… was evidently a success, as he decided to publish a follow-up in 1769, titled Voyage pittoresque de la Flandre et du Brabant. This text was less a dictionary of biography work than a travel guide, and it was the first of its kind on the subject to be published in France. Maes’ groundbreaking work as a writer won him important patrons and connections, none more so at first than Claude-Alexandre de Villeneuve, comte de Vence (1702–60). De Villeneuve was a high-ranking officer in the French army and an important figure within the Parisian artistic circles. In the 1740s and 50s he had built up an outstanding collection of predominantly seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, which included an impressive series of Rembrandts, among them the Self-portrait with two circles (Lon- don, Kenwood House, Iveagh Bequest), and works by David Teniers the Younger, Gerard Dou, Nicolaes Berchem and Philips Wouwerman. Descamps dedicated the first volume of La vie… to Vence, who had suggested originally that he put pen to paper and who advised Descamps throughout. More importantly, he lent Descamps his copy of Houbraken’s Groote schouburgh, then the authoritative text on the lives of the 16th and 17th century artists of the Low Countries, and an invaluable resource for any subsequent writer on the subject.
Vence commissioned prints after many of his paintings, thereby increasing their fame both in France and further afield. The collection went to auction in 1761, and attracted numerous interested viewers and buyers. Of the latter, one of the principal collectors was the German Margravine Karoline Luise von Baden, who had developed a taste comparable to Vence’s, thanks to her participation within a shared network of connoisseurs and critics, of whom Descamps was one.
Notes & Bibliography
(1) E.K. Altes, Review: Gaëtane Maes, De l’expertise artistique à la vulgarisation au siècle des Lumières: Jean-Baptiste Descamps (1715-91) et la peinture flamande, hollandaise et allemande, Brepols (2016), in Simiolus - Netherlands quarterly for the history of art, vol. 39 (2017), p.427
(i) G. Maes, De l’expertise artistique à la vulgarisation au siècle des Lumières: Jean-Baptiste Descamps (1715-91) et la peinture flamande, hollandaise et allemande, Brepols (2016)