Jean-Jacques de Boissieu, The Mill on the River (detail), after Jacob Ruisdael, 1774. Etching on cream wove paper, 31.4 x 41.4 cm. Gift of Gilbert L. Gignac, Ottawa, 2016. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

"The French Rembrandt": Etcher Jean-Jacques de Boissieu

Nicknamed “the French Rembrandt,” the Lyonnais artist Jean-Jacques de Boissieu (1736–1810) is an intriguing figure in 18th-century French art – an artist who never adhered to the preponderant Rococo and Neoclassical modes of his era. Instead, he turned to Rembrandt and the Dutch 17th-century etching tradition for inspiration and emulation at a time when the medium had lost its appeal in favour of commercial engraving and the nascent lithography of the late 1790s.

Jean-Jacques de Boissieu, Bust of an Old Man with Bald Head, 1770. Etching on beige laid paper, 33.4 x 26.1 cm; The Sulker, 1770. Etching on beige laid paper, 34.9 x 26.8 cm; and Bust of an Old Man with Long Hair, 1770. Etching on cream wove paper, 30.4 x 24.3 cm. All Gift of Gilbert L. Gignac, Ottawa, 2016. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

The largely self-taught artist developed a passion for etching in his early twenties, and published his first prints at the age of 22. Despite a comfortable upbringing in a noble family, Boissieu relished representing country life. Again and again, he returned to this subject over the course of his half-century long career, continually refining his delicate and sensitive approach beautifully, as exemplified in his etching of portrait heads. Through these, he became an important model for 19th-century artists across Europe, including noted realist Adolph von Menzel (1815–1905).

Although Boissieu spent much of his life in Lyon, while living in Paris between 1761 and 1764, he was afforded the company of influential artists and collectors such as Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805) and Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694–1774). With Claude-Henri Watelet (1718–86) – a legendary collector of etchings and copper plates by Rembrandt – Boissieu made frequent trips to the countryside to draw from nature, and in 1764–65 he accompanied Duc Louis-Alexandre de La Rochefoucauld (1743–92) on a Grand Tour of Italy. These formative experiences instilled in Boissieu a life-long affinity for landscape unequivocally substantiated by his masterpiece in the genre, The Grand Forest, 1798.

Jean-Jacques de Boissieu, The Grand Forest, 1798. Etching on laid paper, 46.3 x 59.5 cm. Purchased 2000 with the support of the Friends of the Print Room Trust, National Gallery of Canada. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Having soon returned to his native Lyon, the etcher found artistic and professional success in markets both at home and abroad. Highly acclaimed beyond France, his work was widely collected during his lifetime, including by the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) and his compatriot, banker Johann Friedrich Städel (1728–1816), founder of the museum in Frankfurt by the same name. Even long after his death in 1810, Boissieu continued to fascinate collectors such as King Ludwig I of Bavaria (1786–1868), who owned a complete set of Boissieu’s etchings, and Baron Edmond de Rothschild (1845–1934), whose collection of over 1,200 sheets by the artist was bequeathed to the Louvre in 1935.

Even though the French Revolution (1789–99) deprived Boissieu of his fortune and of his office as Treasurer of France, a position he had held since 1771, his copper plates were placed “under the protection of the law,” so that his printmaking practice could continue. His celebrated etched Self-Portrait of 1796 dates from this tumultuous period. Recording his own likeness in print for the first and last time at the age of sixty, the artist's image shows the confident, mature artist dressed elegantly in a dark frock coat, a cravat and a conical, brimmed hat. An array of objects on the table denote his artistic trade and education. Most prominent is a plaster reproduction of the head of Antiphanes, one of two sons of the Trojan priest Laocoön, as depicted in the classical sculpture known as Laocoön and His Sons, now in the Vatican collection. Contrasting with its darker surroundings, this bust highlights the significance the artist attached to his Italian sojourn.

Jean-Jacques de Boissieu, Self-Portrait of the Artist holding a Potrait of his Wife, 1796. Etching with drypoint and roulette on grey-blue laid paper, 39 x 29.9 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC and Self-Portrait of the Artist holding a Landscape with Two Cows (7th state), 1796. Etching on cream wove paper, 34.3 x 26.6 cm. Gift of Gilbert L. Gignac, Ottawa, 2016. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

As can be seen in the rare fourth state (of eight) of Boissieu’s Self-Portrait etching, which is in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, originally the artist held in his hands a copperplate portrait of his wife, Anne Roch de Valous (1754–1834), whom he married around 1772/73. This exceptionally crisp impression is printed on bluish paper, a type Boissieu is known to have used occasionally, perhaps when he wanted to achieve a particularly fine impression. In subsequent states of the print, Anne’s bust-length profile was replaced by a landscape with two cows, a subject perhaps less noble, but far more representative of the printmaker’s production. In addition to the ability to compare artistic choices made by the artist, having multiple states of Boissieu’s most famous print allows us to observe the increasing wear of the copper plate with every printing.

Jean-Jacques de Boissieu, The Village Party, 1800. Etching on laid paper, 25.2 x 37.2 cm. Purchased 1976. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Until recently, the Gallery’s collection held only five etchings by Boissieu, the first of which, The Village Party (1800), was acquired in 1976. Gifts of over 80 prints and drawings spanning the artist’s career – a survey of half of the artist’s total inventoried production of 140 works – now complement the Gallery's holdings. Boissieu's work is today represented in leading collections across Europe and the U.S., including in collections in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris, Philadelphia and New York. The recent extensive donations to the National Gallery of Canada make it the main holder of works by Boissieu in Canada and one of the largest public holdings in North America.


For a listing of works by Jean-Jacques Boissieu in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, see the collection online. 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.

Share this article: 

About the Author