Anton Würth is a contemporary German artist who employs the antiquated and labor-intensive medium of engraving to dismantle the pictorial conventions denoting power. A group of prints recently on view at the Snite Museum at the University of Notre Dame document his engagement with the 17th-century engraver Robert Nanteuil, best known for his portraits of the court of Louis XIV. In the exhibition’s central work, N-Predella III (2012), Würth appends his own addenda to Nanteuil’s Portrait Bust of Louis XIV at the Center of an Allegorical Composition (1667) (Fig. 1). It is the most recent work in which Würth unravels the role of ornament, especially its traditional complicity in celebrating autocratic power. Framed at the Snite Museum by historical examples of engraved portraiture, Würth’s prints are revealed in all their visual elegance and conceptual insubordination.1
Nanteuil developed both a set of compositional arrangements and a graceful, rigorous system of engraving with hatching, dots, dashes and flecks, which together established a standard visual syntax for engraved portraiture. It was a style that reflected the rational and absolutist aesthetic of Louis’ artistic patronage as a whole, from Hyacinthe Rigaud’s state portrait to the design of Versailles and its gardens. By the 20th century it had not
simply fallen from favor but had come to represent a nadir of printmaking as a creative art: William Ivins derided Nanteuil’s system of engraving as a “deliberately contrived net of rationality” that produced “masks that did duty for the faces of men in high places under the king.”2 Only in the past few years have artists and historians begun to reconsider this judgment.
- Anton Würth, Kupferstiche: Engravings (New York, NY: C.G. Boerner, 2007), 3.