Sunday, July 18, 2010

Three pre-Gébelin Prints

Grosvenor Prints has three striking and early prints of fortune-telling with cards, from the 18th century. (I'll number the links for your shopping convenience—don't delay!) The first to catch my attention was The Curious Couple, (Les Epoux Curieux). “A young couple have their fortune told through the cards of an old woman”. The engraving is by Ponce, based on a painting by Sigmund Freudenberger (or Freudeberg). The print is undated, but Grosvenor indicates c.1780. You can add it to your collection for £220, and it would look spectacular framed in the library of a Tarot enthusiast. It turns out to be one half of a pair, the second being The Prediction Realized, (L'Horoscope Accomplie), in which the fortune teller visits the couple's new-born baby in their home.

1a. Grosvenor Prints: Les Epoux Curieux
1b. Grosvenor Prints: L'Horoscope Accomplie

The dating, c.1780, was weak, but Google Books showed a notice of the engravings in the 1777 Journal des Sciences et des Beaux-Arts. (Also listed in the Catalogue Hebdomadaire, ou Liste des Livres, Estampes, Cartes, for Saturday, June 21, 1777.) This source pins down the date, makes clear the connection between the two images, and provides the text associated with each print. (Google is a often a great research assistant.) As Ross put it, the two prints are a pair, the one giving the prophecy, the other its fulfillment. Ross translated the descriptive passage from the Journal, as well as the verses which accompany each print.

The Curious Spouses, & The Horoscope Accomplished, two Prints of nine inches in height by fifteen in length; by M. Ponce, after the designs of Freudeberg, price 2 livres. In Paris, chez Ponce, Engraver, rue Saint-Hyancinthe, house of M. de Bure. In the first of these Prints, an Old Woman reads the cards & consults the fate of two young Spouses who listen to the oracle with the most intense interest. In the second, the young Woman uncovers a cradle, & shows to the Old Woman a baby asleep; the father, with a joyful expression, seems to thank the Old Woman, who is apparently saying to them that her Art never lies. There is the most sublime expressiveness in the character of their faces and heads; the Old Woman, in both the first and second prints, is strikingly true-to-life. It is all done in the most elegant style. M. (B)erquin has explained the subject matter in this fashion; that of the first Print by these four verses; it is the Old Woman who is speaking:

The Curious Couple
What do I see in these lucky signs, happy couple?
What prize does the reading promise for your faithful passions?
You laugh, pleasant couple! But in less than a year, to your house,
I wish to go myself to learn of the news.

The Poet makes the Old Woman say, in the second:
The Prediction Realized
Well, well! Young couple, have I betrayed your wishes?
Now do you think my Art is a frivolous game?
The effect of the promises of the reading is no longer in doubt,
When Love should help it keep its word.

Authorship of the Curious Couple

The details of the print's authorship are interesting. In the Journal des Sciences et des Beaux-Arts notice, the verses were said to have been written by a “Perquin”. This seems to be a reference to Arnaud Berquin (1747-1791), a French children's author. The time and place, as well as the author's interests, tend to coincide with the publication of the prints. The engraver, Nicolas Ponce (1746-1831), was a man of letters and “an engraver of great merit, and second only to Nicolas de Launay, whose pupil he was, in rendering the work of Baudouin.”

PONCE, Nicolas, a French engraver, was born in Paris in 1746, and died therein 1831. He was a pupil of M. Pierre, the painter, and of Fessard and Delaunay, the engravers. His works are rather numerous, as he was employed on several of those grand publications which do honour to the French nation.... He was the editor of the Bible with 300 engravings after Marillier; and dedicated to Louis XVIII, the beautiful edition in quarto of the 'Charter'. He also wrote and translated several works relative to the arts.
(Dictionary of Painters and Engravers (1889), Michael Bryan)

The main author is the original artist, Sigmund Freudenberger (1745-1801), a Swiss painter and engraver, known for genre works. The following biographical sketch appears on many Web pages, and appears to come from Volume 11 of The Dictionary of Art (1996), by Groves Dictionaries:

Sigmund Freudenberger:
(b Berne, 16 June 1745; d Berne, 13 Aug 1801).
Swiss painter, draughtsman and engraver. In 1761 he went to work for the portrait painter Emanuel Handmann in Basle, where he stayed for three years. In 1765, with Adrian Zingg (1734–86), he left for Paris, where he trained with Jakob Schmutzer (1733–1811) and frequented the studio of Jean Georges Wille, the celebrated engraver. He worked as a book illustrator during this period. The work of Boucher, whom he met, and of Greuze and Fragonard had a significant influence on his artistic development. Freudenberger returned in 1773 to Berne, where he undertook several portraits. He became friendly with Johann Ludwig Aberli, with whom he travelled the countryside, which he recorded in numerous drawings, watercolours and engravings. He specialized in genre scenes, rustic still-lifes and portrayals of Bernese peasant life, which became very popular. In some works, such as a red chalk drawing of A Woman Playing the Harp (1778; Zurich, Schweizer. Landesmus.), he continued the gallant style he had learnt from Boucher. His watercolours were frequently engraved, either individually or in series, and hand-coloured. His style is characterized by detailed and careful execution and by an intimate, narrative approach, although he tended to idealize his rustic subject-matter. His work was significant in introducing genre subjects in Switzerland, where artists had tended to concentrate on pure landscape. He ran a large studio where Daniel Lafond (1763–1831), Niklaus König and Georg Mind (1768–1814) were pupils. The French Revolution was disastrous for his art and his business and clouded the last years of his life. After his death Mind coloured his engravings.

Drawing by Freudenberger

Painting by Freudenberger

Other Versions of Freudenberger's Design

The Freudenberger designs, The Curious Couple and The Prediction Realized, were influential. While the Ponce prints are established as 1777, Grosvenor Prints has a second undated print based on Freudenberger's Epoux Curieux, which they suggest is c.1770. (The blurb refers to Tarot cards, which may be profitably ignored as an ill-considered imposition by the copy writer.)

2. Grosvenor Prints: Dans ce points fortunes

Published in Venice by Nicolo Cavalli (1730 - 1822), this is a beauty, and a steal at only £140! It is often the case with copied woodcuts and engravings that some copies are reversed L-R from the original. This engraving is reversed with regard to the other versions found online, (but the Freudenberger original does not seem to be reproduced anywhere Google can reach). The engraver was Pellegrino de Colle (1737-1812), but a cursory search online turned up no confirmation of the early date. However, the mere fact that the design was being reproduced in Paris and Venice during the 1770s tells us something of its initial popularity.

Pellegrino de Colle Print

From online auction records, the two paintings appear to have been copied by Marie Marc Antoine Bilcoq (or Billecoq, 1755-1838), Les époux curieux/L'horoscope accomplie, oil/canvas/panel, 49x65 cm. This is what European Paintings in the Collection of the Worcester Art Museum (1974, Worcester Art Museum) has to say about Bilcoq:

Bilcoq was a minor Parisian follower of Chardin and Greuze, and much influenced by the Dutch Little Masters. Not a great deal is known of his life except that he entered the academy in 1785 and in 1789 was admitted to membership. Undoubtedly many of his works are attributed to other artists of the period. There is a dated painting in the Hermitage (1782) and several examples in provincial museums and private collections.

In the late 19th century the two prints apparently became popular and were repeatedly reproduced. In 1874, L'Art had the two pieces done by Paul Edmé Le Rat (L'Horoscope) and Félix Augustin Milius (L'Horoscope Réalisé). The following seems to be a list of others, from Dessins, gouaches, estampes et tableaux du dix-huitième siècle (1893, by Gustave Bourcard).

The Le Rat/Milius reproductions are mentioned in Cartomancy: History and Legend of a Prophetic Art, as is Halbou's 1770 La Crédulité Sans Réflexion, discussed next.

An Emblem of Mindless Gullibility

Grosvenor Prints has a third item for your wall. It's more famous, more sophisticated and amusing, but also a bit pricier (£320): La Crédulité sans réflexion. They give a date c.1770, which can be documented online. The weekly L'Avant-Coureur (Paris, 1760-1773), for April 23, 1770, announced a print by (Jean) Louis Michel Halbou (1730-1809) titled Credulity without Reflection, (La Crédulité sans réflexion), based on a painting by Johann Eleazar Schenau (1737-1806). (A whole-hearted Attaboy! to anyone who posts a good image of that original.) The reviewer praised its sense of humor, the lesson it offers for the superstitious, and the skills of the engraver. (Reported in Inventaire du fonds français: graveurs du dix-huitième siècle, Volume 11, p.200. Google Books offers a snippet view.) Anyway, it's a great print; buy it now, while it's only 240 years old. You know you want it....

3. Grosvenor Prints: La Crédulité Sans Réflexion

Mindless Gullibility

A foolish Matto and deceptive Bagatto could scarcely be better illustrated, even though the cards depicted are from an ordinary deck. In that same year, L'Avant-Coureur also reviewed a book by Jean-Baptiste Alliette, titled, Etteilla, ou manière de se récréer avec un jeu de cartes. The hag in the print might be thought of as one of Etteilla's reported teachers in the ancient art of conning and fleecing. Like the Epoux Curieux, later versions of this image were made.

Emile Angelo Grillot de Givry (1870-1929) included this image in his A Pictorial Anthology of Witchcraft, Magic and Alchemy.

A beautiful eighteenth-century print, La Crédulité Sans Réflexion, engraved by Halbou after a picture by Schenau, gives a typical presentation of the hovel—which has long been accepted as her classic dwelling—of the cartomanticist witch with ladies of quality for clients. Dressed in rags, with a necklace of teeth and knucklebones, the prophetess has spread the Great Pack in front of her, and is interpreting it with the hypocritical smile of the go-between. Before her is a cup containing the coffee-grounds which she uses as a help in reading the future. A dried bat is hung on the wall, and an owl perches on the shattered window. A lady attired in much finery listens enraptured to what the witch is telling her; she is not alarmed, but the waiting-woman behind her is dying with fear, and is incapable of keeping back the little dog who yaps at the witch's bristling-tailed cat. At the right of the foreground some mysterious personage whom we cannot identify is shut in a cage and concealed by a curtain. It may be a demon like the one grinning behind the door in Albrecht Dürer's print of the four witches or some inquisitive soul who has hidden there to overhear the lady's secrets. It is difficult to make out the painter's exact intentions.

A better view of the design can be obtained in this image, from Andrea Vitali’s Le Tarot site. It is the eighth thumbnail image in the series on that page. The early date is not mentioned.

Le Tarot: Photos: Tarots and Cartomancy

A later version of it is online at the New York Public Library site. Unfortunately, it has little information.

When Cartomancy was New

The prints are noteworthy in several respects. One concerns the stereotypes of the clients. Ross points out that Curious Couple depicts that most characteristic constellation of questions that might be asked of a cartomancer, questions related to love and family. He notes that court cards lent themselves to such readings, and that other forms of divination were routinely used for other types of questions. The credulous woman with her servant, dressed in a lavish costume, insinuates that such frivolous indulgences are the concern of frivolous people, a pejorative stereotype which endures to this day.

Reversal of Fortune?

It is worth noting that, in the absence of solid information on the originals, it may be that the cynical Schenau version was a conscious rejoinder to the syrup-sweet Freudenberger design. Many elements are almost directly reversed, most strikingly the husband is replaced with a maid or, more generally, the modestly attired couple is replaced with a richer (and single?) woman and her servant. The composition is changed from roomy to cramped and from messy to dilapidated and ominous. The querent changes from being physically connected to her companion by an affectionate gesture to waving her companion aside with a dismissive gesture. The friendly counselor with an upward gesture becomes an angry, menacing figure pointing downward. The clearly charmed companion, being drawn forward in Freudenberger becomes the appalled companion being intimidated and taken aback in Schenau. It seems more than merely possible that Schenau was nauseated by Freudenberger's sentimental portrait of gullible simps and their superstitious ritual and concocted his vision of La Crédulité sans réflexion as a direct response.

As characteristic works of art from the late 18th century, these prints suggest a didactic attitude. That is, each uses the ostensible subject matter, a card reading by a social inferior, as the basis for a moralizing tableau. Greuze and others introduced serious themes into genre painting. (The categories of historical versus genre were themselves a serious matter in terms of artistic prestige.) Here we have two very different approaches to meaningful themes in a supposedly decorative category of work. First, the mindless gullibility depicted in Halbou's image reflects the rationalism of the Enlightenment via scolding mockery. (We can imagine the maid, snorting into her hand, speaking sotto voce, “surely Madame does not believe such wild claims”; but her mistress waves for her to be silent.) The disparity of the social status between the foolish client and the professional charlatan is exaggerated in comparison with the more restrained design of Freudenberger, heightening the absurdity of the crone's tableau.

In contrast, the Romantic backlash to the Enlightenment was a naturalistic movement, and the curious couple reflects a sentimental take on the subject of fortune-telling. “The debonair toying with rural delights and domestic virtues, so characteristic of the period are illustrated in such pictures as Les Epoux Curieux and L'Horoscope accompli, both by Ponce after Freudeberg.” (Arts & Decoration, v.9, 1918, p.100.) The couple's curiosity, regardless of the means they choose to satisfy it, concerns the most basic aspects of family. Harsh Enlightenment rationality versus sweet Romantic sentimentality, both reflected in a genre depiction of fortune-telling, each characteristic of the period.

Reversal of Fortune?

The early dating is significant. To the cultists who believe that playing cards were invented for fortune-telling, or were always used as a fortune-telling device, almost any picture of playing cards can be, and has been, interpreted as corroborating evidence. To such modern crédulité sans réflexion, these images from the 1770s are no different than the rest. However, these prints do not require folkloric filters to falsify our view: they are actual representations of the kind of cartomancy that took centuries to evolve, dated to the period when it actually came into flower. That period is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the prints.

The 1770s and 80s were a watershed era during which playing cards had become widely established and newly formalized as a means of fortune telling, and French Freemasons were turning Tarot cards into an esoteric codebook. Playing cards' evolution from their use as mere indices in 16th-century lot books, through special fortune-telling decks like the Dorman Newman (Lenthall) deck in the late 17th century, to the growing use of regular decks for fortune-telling during the 18th century was complete. The evidence from the first half of the 18th century and earlier may be restricted to Spain, but from the second half of that century we have Pratesi's list of divinatory meanings in Italy, Casanova's Zaïre with her cards in 1765 Russia, Parlett's findings re Patience in 1783 Germany, and the more well-known "inventor" of cartomancy, Alliette, in 1770 France.

Whatever folk practices may have developed earlier, by 1770 a turning point had clearly been reached in which such practices became common. As a final example, it seems that both the Freudenberger design and the Schenau may have been published as prints within a year of when young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was visiting a card reader in Strasbourg. The account in his autobiography is consistent with elements discussed above: young women consulting an old woman regarding affaires de coeur. Certain preliminary rituals were expected and performed, and the girls were convinced that, if consulted sincerely, the cards would reveal the truth: crédulité sans réflexion. This had become a well-known and widespread practice at the time, and these prints are characteristic of that practice as well as being from that transitional period.

While these popular genre scenes depict fortune-telling with cards, we may remember that such new uses for both regular cards and Tarot were minor in comparison with the overwhelmingly more prevalent (albeit boring to relate) use—playing cards. As difficult as it is for some to believe, playing cards were used for playing cards, and this never ceased to be the case. In particular, this period when Tarot was being coopted by Masonic fictions was also the height of its popularity as a game. Modernized Tarot decks were being invented, and the archaic medieval allegory of the trump cycle was being replaced with anything from animals to advertising. In these endlessly varied new forms, the game spread throughout much of Europe. One of the most popular patterns to arise is known as the Wüst (Wuest) deck. In that pattern the trumps themselves depict genre scenes. Oddly enough, these might have served far better as fortune-telling decks than either the misunderstood standard trumps or Etteilla's misguided corruptions.

Many thanks to Ross for the translations, and for pointing out the occasional blunder.
As always, any opinions expressed and any remaining blunders are solely my own damned fault.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, and beautiful prints. Amazing how all the stereotypes were already present: the old crooked lady, the young girl -or couple- the sheherazade-like affectation of the reader, the self-indulgent attitude of the client, the friend whose “Uhs!” and “Ohs!” hint the reader that she is on the right track...