François Boucher, Two Ways
By Joseph Litts, WPAMC Class of 2020
Usually, all I need to hear are the words “French” and “rococo” and I’m sold—add “works on paper” and I’m as happy as a clam. As part of the first-year connoisseurship classes, our prints and paintings block has taken us through the developments of early-modern and modern reproductive printing processes. One of my favorite techniques is the crayon method of engraving, so called because of its ability to accurately (re)create the unique aspects of chalk or crayon drawings.
Gilles Demarteau (Belgian, active France, 1722–1776) did not invent the crayon manner, but he and his workshop significantly refined the process in the mid-eighteenth century, and his name is the one mostly frequently associated with it today. In 1757, he presented several of his prints to the French Academy, who lauded his process for “perpetuating the drawings of the masters and multiplying examples of the most beautiful ways of drawing.” This was one of the rare instances that the Academy sanctioned a reproductive print-making process as one of equivalent standing to painting or drawing, because the technology of the process was deemed so important to the ultimate outcome of the image.
Two such prints by Demarteau were recently acquired by Winterthur for the collection (Figs. 1 and 2). Both of the prints at Winterthur are virtuosic depictions of heads in three quarter view, after drawings by François Boucher (French, 1703–1770). Demarteau would engrave over 300 of Boucher’s drawings, some of which were created by Boucher specifically for reproduction. The prints may have been intended as part of a drawing manual, to show students the proper way to draw heads at this angle. Such manuals were popular in the eighteenth century and copying from prints was seen as one of the best ways to learn artistic practice in the period.
In many ways, the crayon method reversed the usual process of reproductions; rather than turning drawings into prints it sought to turn prints into drawings. Crayon method engravings are done with a small roulette tool on a metal plate (usually copper), giving a broken line and tonality closer to mezzotint than traditional engraving. Indeed, the process is eerily successful at producing images resembling drawings.
The prints have carefully executed bands of solid color at the perimeter, imitating what we now call French matting. They could be easily framed and hung as part of a carefully orchestrated visual arrangement of a room. However, the inscription at the bottom of both prints, “Du Cabinet de Madame d Axaincourt A Paris” (From the cabinet [or collection] of Madam d’Axaincourt in Paris), informs the viewer of the location of the original drawings, underlining that these are not the original works of art.
Drawings in chalk were generally preparatory works for larger paintings. The burgeoning art market in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, created a demand for these drawings, which were no longer necessarily just studies for paintings. Drawings had become works of art in their own right and were collected in the market accordingly. Artists such as François Boucher were engaged with this market. They, and others (such as Antoine Watteau or Luca Giordano), combined several colors of chalk and tinted paper to push the boundaries of visual representation possible through these drawings (Fig. 3). Simultaneously, the crayon manner of engraving, with several other printing techniques, would enable printmakers to reproduce the several colors of these drawings originally executed “aux trois crayons.”
One of the underlying problems of making prints after “original” art works, however, was that to achieve a successful reproduction, the engraver had to more or less seamlessly become one with the artist, aping their style perfectly (at least in theory). The print was thus effectively a translation of the original painting or drawing, one that called attention to the particular qualities which could and could not be expressed in various media. The crayon method used in these prints brought the reproductive closer to the original.
Creating these reproductions of drawings was a way to cultivate the persona of the artist, building their reputation through widespread dissemination of their work. François Boucher took advantage of the multiplicity of prints and consciously worked with Demarteau to create more easily marketable images, which had a distinct financial benefit for all involved, but also enabled Boucher to demonstrate his skills as a draftsman—skills that are clearly on view in the prints at Winterthur.
 s.v. “Crayon Manner,” André Béguin, Technical Dictionary of Printmaking, Trans. Allan Grieco. (Brussels: A. Béguin, 1981–84). Transcribed online at Polymetaal, https://www.polymetaal.nl/beguin/alfabet.htm.
Katie Scott, “Reproduction and Reputation: ‘François Boucher’ and the Formation of Artistic Identities,” in Rethinking Boucher. Eds. Melissa Hyde and Mark Ledbury. (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2006) 91–122.
“Crayon Manner,” in The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art. Ed. Gerald Ward. (New York: Oxford UP, 2008). 152–54.