A Familiar Face? Unveiling Claude Mellan
Have you seen this face before? Although it is exceptionally familiar to some, the floating, bodiless head may feel foreign to others. Within the discipline of art history and European art, in particular, this image is legendary. Not necessarily for who and what it portrays, however, but for how the artist – the engraver Claude Mellan (1598–1688) – created it.
It consists of just one single line, starting at the tip of the nose and spiralling outwards: a major technical feat in drawing, let alone in printmaking. For this print, the artist used a burin (a chisel-like tool) in varying angles and with varied pressure to engrave into a copperplate an undulating circular line that swells and recedes in order to render a face. He then filled the 150-metre spiralling groove with ink, making sure to wipe the rest of the plate clean, so as to print just the face. The resulting print is a mirror image of the copperplate, meaning the printmaker had to engrave his plate in reverse of how the final print was to appear. A deeper, wider and denser groove yielded darker areas, making the beard, eyes and hair stand out in the final print. By contrast, a shallower and more spaced-out line made these areas look fainter or recessed. Juxtaposing these darker and fainter areas conveys three-dimensionality to the face.
This single-line virtuoso engraving from 1649, titled The Sudarium of Saint Veronica, is Claude Mellan’s claim to fame. It presents an artistic and religious paradox that elevates the art of engraving. It depicts not a face in and of itself, but a cloth said to have been used by a woman named Veronica to wipe the face of Jesus on his way to his crucifixion. Within the Christian tradition, this cloth containing the print-like impression of Jesus’ face is considered a holy relic. Known as the Sudarium or Veil of Saint Veronica, or Vera Icona [the true image], the cloth derives its special status from a belief that the image on it is not a handmade depiction, but rather an actual imprint taken directly from Jesus’ face. In creating this illusionistic Sudarium through a technological feat, Mellan is paying tribute to a religious and visual tradition, all the while staking a claim for his art.
The Latin inscriptions on Mellan’s print cement his statement. By inscribing “FORMATUR UNICUS UNA” (“the one and only made from the one and only”) at the bottom of the veil, Mellan parallels Jesus – or in the Christian tradition, the one and only son born from the one and only Virgin Mary – to his own creation, that is, the one and only image of the face of Jesus made from a one and only line. Below the Sudarium, the words “NON ALTER” (“that cannot be imitated”) emphasize, on the one hand, Jesus’ unique character, and, on the other, Mellan’s unsurpassed technical ability. Even the artist’s signature points to his elevated status: “C. Mellan G. P. ET F. IN AEDIBUS REG 1649” stands for “Claude Mellan Gallicus (that is to say, the Frenchman) painted and made this in the king’s building (the Louvre) in 1649.
In his day, Mellan gained the trust and admiration of major patrons, and of influential artists, including the leading sculptor of the Baroque era, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680). Although little is known about Mellan’s life, his extensive production and social network, gleaned from the numerous and prestigious commissions he received, place him at the centre of the golden age of French engraving.
Mellan first studied in Rome with painter Simon Vouet (1590–1649), who rose to prominence in Italy before being called in 1627 to his native France by Louis XIII to become his court painter. Vouet encouraged Mellan to focus on portraiture. After moving back to Paris in 1637, the engraver achieved renown and was henceforth commissioned by influential figures, especially for his elegant and naturalistic portraiture, which makes up a quarter of his print production. Among the many beautifully executed examples are the likenesses of Cardinal Jules Mazarin, astronomer and savant Nicolas-Claude de Peiresc and Italian painter Virginia da Vezzo, Vouet’s spouse. Mellan’s engraved portraits and those by the other great 17th-century French portrait engraver, Robert Nanteuil (1623–78) – the Gallery possesses extensive holdings of his work – read as a remarkable who’s who of 17th-century France.
In an unprecedented way, Mellan’s portrait prints aligned his technical mastery of the burin with his penetrating understanding of the sitter. It was during Mellan and Nanteuil’s time that the art of engraving was pronounced free and distinct from the mechanical arts, when Louis XIV declared in his 1660 Edict of St-Jean-de-Luz that all French engravers were from this point forward entitled to the privileges of other artists. One can surmise the impact of Mellan’s one-line Sudarium of Saint Veronica on this apotheosis in the art of engraving.
Due to its fame, it is unsurprising that an impression of this print was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in 1916, in the very early stages of its print collecting. What is surprising, however, is that, in the century that followed, the Sudarium was joined by only two other engravings from the artist’s output of more than 400 works: the portraits of Michel de Marolles (1648), purchased in 1921, and Henriette-Maria de Buade Frontenac (1641), purchased in 1985.
Through the recent gift of an extensive and representative collection of more than 80 engravings by Mellan, the Gallery proudly joins the ranks of the largest North-American public collections of works by this engraver, namely the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Our holdings now span the artist’s complete œuvre, from the beginning of his career in Paris, to Rome, to his return to Paris and the later years of his life, to his very last copperplate engraving at the venerable age of 89 (St. Peter's Remorse, 1687).
The works encompass the different genres and subgenres he embraced – whether religious, mythological, allegorical or portraiture – as well as illustrations of famous antique sculptures and thesis engravings. The latter were broadsheets commissioned by graduating students to advertise the time and place of their public academic defence, while listing the primary arguments and conclusions of the thesis. Because of their sizeable format and the resulting difficulty in storing them, thesis prints rarely survived. We are fortunate to count an impression of a plate from the Philosophy Thesis of Guillaume de Longueil and impressions of two plates from the Theology Thesis of Antoine Talon among the sheets donated to the Gallery.
Perhaps someday a lucky star will lead one of Mellan’s 1637 prints of the three phases of the moon to our collection. Based on drawings he made in Aix-en-Provence in 1636, while observing the moon through a telescope (invented less than three decades prior), these modern and portrait-like depictions of the moon are a print curator’s dream.
For a full list of holdings of works by Claude Mellan and Robert Nanteuil at the National Gallery of Canada, consult the online collection. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.