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Portrait of Jean-François Rameau, "Rameau's Nephew" by Jean-Georges Wille
Portrait of Jean-François Rameau, "Rameau's Nephew" by Jean-Georges Wille - Paintings & Drawings Style Louis XV Portrait of Jean-François Rameau, "Rameau's Nephew" by Jean-Georges Wille -
Ref : 108413
12 000 €
Period :
18th century
Artist :
Jean-Georges Wille
Provenance :
Medium :
Black chalk and white chalk highlights on colored paper
Dimensions :
l. 5.51 inch X H. 7.87 inch
Paintings & Drawings  - Portrait of Jean-François Rameau, "Rameau's Nephew" by Jean-Georges Wille 18th century - Portrait of Jean-François Rameau, "Rameau's Nephew" by Jean-Georges Wille
Stéphane Renard Fine Art

Old master paintings and drawings

+33 (0) 61 46 31 534
Portrait of Jean-François Rameau, "Rameau's Nephew" by Jean-Georges Wille

Black chalk and white chalk highlights on colored paper

7 7/8” x 5 ½” (20 x 14 cm) - Framed: 14 3/8” x 12” (36.5 x 30.5 cm)

Provenance: Jean-Baptiste Antoine Lassus (1807 - 1857) architect ; Marie Joseph-François Mahérault (1795-1879), State Counsellor who bought it from Lassus; by inheritance to Élisabeth Mahérault, wife of the librettist and playwright Fernard-Emile, comte de Najac (1828-1889); by inheritance to Raoul de Najac (1856 - 1915) author, actor and playwright, pantomime specialist (!) and mayor of Pont-L'Abbé

Exhibition: 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris - Galerie des Portraits Nationaux at the Palais du Trocadéro - number 578

Publication: this drawing was reproduced in etching by Saint-Elme Gauthier to illustrate the 1883 edition of Le Neveu de Rameau published by A. Quantin. (A copy of this etching is joined to the drawing).

Price on request

Framing: Exceptional Louis XV period rocaille frame in carved and gilded wood, decorated with cartouches adorned with shells and flowering branches.

This portrait of a melancholic young man with a slightly shifty gaze allows us to put a face on a famous figure among the eccentrics of the second half of the 18th century: the musician Jean-François Rameau (1716 - 1777), nephew of the famous composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 - 1764). This portrait, which appears to be the only one produced during Jean-François Rameau's lifetime, bears witness to his stay in the workshop of the engraver Jean-George Wille in 1746.

Many years later, our model would achieve posthumous literary fame as one of the two protagonists of "Rameau's Nephew", the eponymous dialogue written by Denis Diderot (1713 - 1784) between 1762 and 1763. This drawing, which was exhibited at the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris, is an exceptional testimony to artistic and literary life in Paris during the Age of Enlightenment.

1. Jean-Georges Wille, one of the most gifted engravers of 18th-century France

Born in Giessen in the Landgraviate of Hesse-Darmstadt in 1715, Wille apprenticed with the engraver Georg Friederich Schmidt in Strasbourg before moving to Paris in 1736. He soon made the acquaintance of Denis Diderot (b. 1713), while living on rue de l'Observance in the Odéon district. Diderot was his contemporary and they remained closely associated throughout their life.

Encouraged to take up copperplate engraving by the painter Hyacinthe Rigaud, he became one of the leading interpretive engravers in Paris, engraving both works by his contemporaries and paintings by the old masters. Engraver to Kings Frederick II and Frederick V of Denmark, he also became the official engraver to the court of Louis XV, and was elected to the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in 1761.

Well-introduced to Parisian circles, his Parisian residence became a veritable hub for Franco-German and, more broadly, European art exchanges. Director of a drawing school, he trained artists from German-speaking countries. A collector of paintings and works of art, he promoted German painters such as Christian Wilhem Ernst Dietrich to the French public, and used his contacts in the French literary world to promote German-language authors in France. He also helps German art lovers to build up their private collections.

His activity was particularly long-lasting, as he continued to engrave until 1790 (i.e. for over 50 years). His belongings were confiscated during the French Revolution, and he ended his life blind and ruined under the Empire.

2. Description of the portrait and comparable works

While the heart of Wille's graphic work is made up of landscapes and genre scenes, the portraits he produced in red or black chalk, although rather rare, are of "very high graphic quality [...]. To render the model in his mimetic truth, in his character and in his moral being, Wille resorts to very simple technical and stylistic means, which confer to his portraits a remarkable conciseness and impressive mastery".

We find these same characteristics in the red chalk portrait of his son (photo in the gallery, as in the portrait presented here.

This three-quarter-length portrait of Jean-François Rameau, with his arms crossed and his head slightly tucked into his shoulders, was painted in 1746, while he was attending Wille's studio. Executed entirely in black chalk, with discreet touches of white chalk to enhance the radiance of the face, this portrait exudes an almost magnetic presence. But it is above all the depth of the psychological analysis that we find interesting, as it echoes in every detail what we know of the model...

3. Jean-François Rameau, an eccentric musician in his uncle's shadow

The man portrayed in this portrait fits the description of his contemporaries: "a slightly counterfeit giant" according to Piron. Nearly twenty years later, Diderot would lend him the following self-description: "I have a large, wrinkled forehead, a fiery eye, a prominent nose, broad cheeks, a full, black eyebrow, a well-slit mouth, a tucked lip and a square face".

Jean-François Rameau was born in Dijon on January 30, 1716 . A precocious musician, he studied at the Jesuit college in Dijon before enlisting in 1736 in the Poitou regiment and spending six years in service. He then considered entering the ecclesiastical state, spending a year in the seminary, and receiving the tonsure, before changing course. It was at this point that he took a few drawing lessons, and perhaps tried his hand at engraving in the workshop of Wille, who had arrived in Paris some ten years earlier.

This new artistic direction proved to be of no avail, and Jean-François Rameau returned to music. Under the name of "Abbé Rameau", he gave harpsichord, violin, and flute lessons, and played in groups performing at private concerts. He found himself in the troupe hired by the Maréchal de Saxe at Chambord, where he met several Swiss officers, whose daughters and wives became his harpsichord pupils...
When he is not playing host to some grand seigneur in the countryside, Rameau is living from the small services he can render : letters carried or cabals set up to ensure the promotion of some actress endowed with a wealthy patron. Abandoning his fake title of Abbé in 1756, Rameau decided to marry in 1757 Ursule-Nicole Fruchet, the daughter of a tailor. He then published a collection of harpsichord pieces, using the fame of his surname. On his wife's death in 1761, he resumed the use of his Abbé title and became a well-known figure in Parisian life... his fame even surpassed that of his uncle, the famous composer of the Indes Galantes! This made him an ideal character for Diderot when, in 1762, the latter began to write a satire ...

4. His posthumous literary fame thanks to Diderot

"Did the actual conversation take place in a single after-dinner session, or did Diderot, wishing to make several studies before deciding on his final composition, manage to obtain several sessions in a short space of time from his moving model? It's difficult to form an opinion in this respect; but when the interview comes to an end, we seem to be in the early days of 1763".

Diderot wrote this "satire" at a difficult time in his life. As he approached fifty, difficulties were mounting in the publication of the Encyclopédie. Rameau's Nephew is Diderot's response to these difficulties, for it is first and foremost a satirical indictment of the Encyclopédie's enemies, written in the form of a dialogue between Rameau, "the nephew of that famous musician who delivered us from Lulli's plainchant" and Diderot, whom Rameau calls "Monsieur le Philosophe". Diderot gathers the confidences of this secondary character, who nonetheless knew all the philosophers' enemies; because he personifies the whole band of his enemies, they offer Diderot the opportunity to take revenge by revealing their schemes, before concluding bitterly " my goodness, what you call the pantomime of the beggars is the great wobble of the earth ".

5. A complicated publication

The story of Rameau's Nephew’s publication mirrors that of this whimsical character. The work first appeared in Germany, in a German translation made by Goethe from a manuscript copy that had fallen into Schiller's hands in 1804. Two French literati took advantage of the attention paid to Diderot's works under the Restoration to publish a French translation of Goethe's work, modifying it in places and passing it off as Diderot's original. At the same time, another bookseller, Brière, who had had access to a copy of the original manuscript, was also publishing his version. Goethe was called in to authenticate the original text, and endorsed Brière's publication. The manuscript copy used by Brière belonged to Diderot's daughter, Madame de Vandeul, and disappeared after her death in 1824.

The manuscript used by Goethe also seems to have disappeared. It must have been a copy of Diderot's own copy, which was itself probably made by Roland Girbal, Grimm's favorite copyist. Purchased by Catherine II along with Diderot's entire library, it is kept in the Hermitage library. It was considered the most faithful version of the text until Diderot's original, autograph manuscript was rediscovered in 1891 in a Paris bookshop !

6. The rediscovery of a portrait exhibited at the 1878 Universal Exhibition, then forgotten

Our portrait has a history almost as unexpected as that of the publication of Rameau’s Nephew. Its first known owner was the architect Jean-Baptiste Antoine Lassus (1807 - 1857), who identified it as a work by Wille through students or friends who had known the old master. This drawing was perhaps coming from his collections, which were looted and dispersed during the French Revolution?

Our drawing was then bought by a friend of Lassus, the State Counsellor Marie Joseph-François Mahérault (1795-1879), who lent it to the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris for the Galerie des Portraits Nationaux at the Palais du Trocadéro, where it appeared under number 578. The drawing remained in the family for at least three generations, since its last known owner was Mahérault's grandson, Raoul de Najac (1856 - 1915), another colorful character: author, actor and playwright, pantomime specialist (!) and mayor of Pont-L'Abbé ("the most singular mayor in the history of Cornouaille", according to the historian Serge Digou).

We then lost track of this drawing until it reappeared at public auction in 2022...

7. Framing

We have chosen to present this drawing in an exceptional rocaille frame in carved and gilded wood from the Louis XV period, decorated with cartouches adorned with shells and flowering branches.

Main bibliographical references:
Johann Georg Wille (1715 - 1808) et son milieu - un réseau européen de l'art au XVIIIème siècle - Ecole du Louvre 2009
Denis Diderot - Le Neveu de Rameau (notice, notes, bibliography by Gustave Isambert - Paris A. Quantin 1883

Delevery information :

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Stéphane Renard Fine Art


Drawing & Watercolor Louis XV