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July 14, 2023

Acquisition: Louis-Jean Desprez

Louis-Jean Desprez, "Tomb with Death Standing,"

Louis-Jean Desprez
Tomb with Death Standing, c. 1779/1784
etching and aquatint on laid paper
sheet: 40 x 54.3 cm (15 3/4 x 21 3/8 in.)
plate: 37.7 x 52.3 cm (14 13/16 x 20 9/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Ruth and Jacob Kainen Memorial Acquisition Fund

Louis-Jean Desprez (1743–1804) was one of the most imaginative and inventive artists working in late 18th-century Europe. The National Gallery of Art has acquired Tomb with Death Standing (1779/1784), one of four aquatinted tombs that Desprez made following his travels in southern Italy. The aquatint joins a proof of the same subject matter that was acquired by the National Gallery in 2019. The tomb series appears to be his earliest known work in the then-new medium of aquatint. Desprez’s embrace of this innovative medium enabled him to create new subject matter and set his work apart from tomb and architectural designs produced by his predecessors and contemporaries.

Desprez created this untitled series of four aquatinted tombs to appeal to contemporary interest in archaeological excavations, southern Italian catacombs, and Egyptian culture. In each print in the series, a massive tomb with figural sculpture and Egyptian elements occupies an architectural niche in a stone wall. Strong contrasts of illumination and shadow, emphasized by the aquatint technique, enhance the drama and mystery of the scene.

Desprez began each print in the series by etching the outline of the composition on copper plates that he then corroded (“bit”) in acid. He printed proofs of the compositions to review the stages of his work. Serving as an important intermediary stage, the proof of Tomb with Death Standing enabled Desprez to work out the passages of aquatint, anticipating where he would produce the tonal gradations ranging from the wafting smoke to the darkest shadows in the recesses of the niche. The reworking of this etched proof also enabled Desprez to continue to refine the composition’s visual effects of the flickering flame—the only source of illumination—and to experiment with the addition of pseudo-hieroglyphics to the base of the tomb, an idea he ultimately abandoned in the final aquatint.

Unlike the other three prints in Desprez’s series—Tomb with Death Seated, Tomb with Sphinxes and Owl, and Tomb with Caryatids and Lion—there are prominent traces of the printmaking process in the aquatint Tomb with Death Standing. The foul biting and accidental scratches visible in the aquatinted passages of the print most likely indicate that this was the first composition Desprez made in the series. It exemplifies the artist’s experimentation with aquatint’s ability to create the rich, tonal darkness found in the dramatic shadows and evoke a mysterious atmosphere that emphasizes the macabre subject matter. 

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