PIERRE-ALEXANDRE WILLE (1748-1821)
THE TRAVELLING MUSICIANS
Pen & ink on paper
44 x 33 cm
Private collection, France
The present work depicts a trio of itinerant musicians, a subject which Wille treated on at least one further occasion, in a work dated to 1785 (see image 4 above). Our drawing is a fascinating indication of the diverse artistic influences which the artist drew upon, with both the handling and the figures themselves indebted to a variety of Wille's forebears, both French and Italian: this work and a number of the artist's other pen & ink drawings calls to mind several earlier artists, in particular Giovanni Barberi (called Guercino), whose intricate pen-work - with a variety of heavily hatched lines and more simple, looping lines to the background - and exaggeratedly stylised facial types can be closely compared to Wille's. There is also something of the Gandolfi family - namely Gaetano and Mauro - in Wille's style, and all three artists were contemporaries, with the Gandolfi's engravings of figure and head studies almost certainly known to the urbane Wille. Finally, the subject matter - curious, almost clown-like musician vagabonds - points both to the performers of Watteau and Lancret, as well as to the caricatures of mendicants which Jacques Callot had made famous in the mid-17th century (see image 5 above for a drawing by Wille of precisely this genre).
Pierre-Alexandre Wille was born in Paris, the son of Johann Georg Wille, a German-born engraver who spent the majority of his very successful career in France. The younger Wille's earliest studies were, as one would expect, in the studio of his father; however, from 1761 to 1763, he studied with one of France's greatest draughtsmen, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, before joining the studio of another, Joseph-Marie Vien. The young artist's father and his reputation doubtless paved the way for his early acceptance into the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, though he chose never to go on to become a fully-fledged academician. Wille exhibited at the majority of the Salons between 1775-1787 and, for a time, served as a court painter to King Louis XVI, the last King of France.
With the advent of Revolution, Wille served with the Garde Nationale; however, the newly minted bureaucrats and burgeoning middle-classes' tastes had moved away from the elegant, decorative works of the final years of the ancien regime, and Wille would suffer dire economic consequences, dying in poverty in 1837.
Wille was not only a gifted draughtsman but a well-respected painter in oils and printmaker (having learned to engrave from his celebrated father). Wille's works can today be found in numerous international institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the British Museum, the National Trust Collections, the Bordeaux Museum of Fine Arts, and the Louvre, among others.