For much of last hundred years, the French 17th-century engraver Robert Nanteuil was viewed as the man who ruined printmaking, the artist whose brilliant system of parallel lines and light flicks killed personal expression and led to centuries of pompous portrait heads in ovals wrapped with various neo-classical doodads. Working at the same time as Rembrandt, he was everything Rembrandt (or at least the modern romantic view of Rembrandt) was not—restrained, precise, artfully sycophantic. Nanteuil was Louis XIV’s favorite engraver, the one who inspired the king to declare engraving an art rather than a mechanical enterprise, and the conventions Nanteuil established lasted centuries. But by the mid-20th century, all William Ivins saw in Nanteuil were “the germs of that final degradation [in which] all personality of both sitter and engraver had vanished.” In 1953 that idea was an abomination. Today it’s fascinating.
In 2007 Anton Würth exhibited an extended conversation with Nanteuil— engravings in which he adopted Nanteuil’s format, broadly speaking, but removed the ostensible subject—the personage—and focused his attention on the various visual devices employed to frame it.1 The clothes, in this case, had no emperor.
Line, ornament and structure operate on their own terms; his goal was to lead “the (engraved) line from being an exclusively subordinate part of representation to a self-referential independence.” These were portraits of portraiture, a system rather than a subject.
In his new Predella engravings (three states of the same plate,) Würth continues his tête-à-tête with Nanteuil in the most literal of ways: creating a new addendum for a portrait of Louis XIV from 1667. The original engraving was itself a collaboration between Nanteuil, who did the portrait, and Gilles Rousselet, who was responsible for the folderol of ermine and eagles, scepters and spears, that crowd around it. Once upon a time, the sheet continued below the portrait with a banderol, a dedication and the conclusions of a philosophical thesis by Cardinal de Bouillon. It is into this now vacant space that Würth has inserted his Predella.
The symbolic conventions of 17th-century ornament embody a particular and nowadays alien mode of representation. So does engraving. Unlike legions of appropriation artists who have been content to play with the easily reproduced aspects of pre-existing images, Würth commits himself to the rigors of Nanteuil’s original method. Engraving is charitably described as “unforgiving”; it requires focus, precision and thousands of hours of practice to do well, and all it gives in return is line.
Würth offers one long looping line that slides from one end of the paper to the other like marks left by a languid (though very accomplished) skater on clean ice. In the first state, a light scattering of floral motifs and two columns of tiny Latinate oppositions (“Inferior superior,” “Minor major,” “Laetior tristor”), are the only allusions to the contents of the missing original.2 In the later states, tassels that start at the bottom of the old print are continued at the top of the new one, as is the banderole, and the wide open line of the first state is augmented by parallel lines and even crosshatchings.
In focusing on the workings of line, Würth elucidates how the presentation, not the portrait, marks Louis, with his silly band-leader mustache, as a metonym for the state; and furthermore, how the engraved line itself functions as a metonym for public power. Ivins disapproved of Nanteuil’s “deliberately contrived net of rationality,” noting that it “was invented for the purpose of portraying the masks that did duty for the faces of the men in high places under the King.” Precisely.
Outside the regular editions: A further impression of N-Predella III (numbered IA,) has been trimmed and framed together with the 1667 engraving, Louis XIV, en buste, au centre d’une composition allégorique, by Robert Nanteuil and Gilles Rousselet. $12,000.
Five artist’s proof impressions (EA I – EA V) of each state have been accordion folded and bound separately in green cloth, using a fragment of another Würth engraving, eher früh und dann doch tanzen, as a title page. The three booklets are boxed together in a slip-cover. $2000 the set.
- See: Robert Nanteuil and Anton Würth, Kupferstiche / Engravings. New York: C.G. Boerner, 2007.
- The words, both businesslike and elegant, were engraved in Vienna by a specialist in business cards, Wolfgang Schön.