Settling in Paris in 1646-47 after training as an engraver in his hometown of Reims, Robert Nanteuil (c. 1623-1678) established himself as a portraitist to the court of Louis XIV, eventually becoming Designer and Engraver to the King. Over the course of his brilliant career, Nanteuil produced more than 230 engravings, the majority of which are portraits of contemporary French dignitaries, including the Queen of France, Anne of Austria, and her son Louis XIV. Most of the portraits that Nanteuil created were originally commissioned by wealthy students to decorate their theses. While many of the sitters are famous, others have faded into historical obscurity. No longer tied to the books and theses they once illustrated, Nanteuil’s engravings now primarily exist as art objects – the material traces of a master engraver and his practice.

In 1947, Helen Brown Keppel (1880-1961) donated a collection of 184 engravings by Robert Nanteuil to Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University. This collection was assembled by her husband Frederick Paul Keppel (1875-1943), who served as Dean of Columbia College from 1910 to 1918. Keppel acquired his taste for prints and collecting from his father, the print dealer Frederick Keppel. By 1923, Keppel had begun to assemble his collection of Nanteuil’s engraved portraits. While Keppel’s collection of these French portraits seems culturally, geographically and temporally distant from his own 20th-century American reality, his interest in these engravings stemmed primarily from their aesthetic power: Nanteuil’s outstanding mastery of his medium, and his remarkable ability to capture the physical resemblance and psychological presence of his sitters. Sixteen of these prints, in various conditions, have been brought together in this exhibition not only to illuminate Nanteuil’s career, but also to shine a light on the nature of Keppel’s collecting practice.

Robert Nanteuil, Designer and Engraver to the King

As Designer and Engraver to the King at a time when portraiture played an important political role, Nanteuil created many portraits of Louis XIV and members of his Court. In 1660, arguing that engraving primarily sought to bring pleasure to its viewer, Nanteuil obtained the King’s official recognition of engraving as a liberal art. In a similar spirit of aesthetic fulfillment, Keppel, who became President of the Carnegie Corporation in 1922, decorated his office with his collection of Nanteuil’s engravings. As his brother humorously noted, “Mr. Carnegie’s portrait, which hung in the President’s office … was surrounded by Seventeenth Century Dukes and Marshalls [sic] of France.” Given this context, the portrait of Mazarin sitting among his vast art collection appears not only as a printed representation of a collection, but also as a metaphor for Keppel’s collecting practice, and the print itself as an object to be collected.

  • Portrait of Anne of Austria (1601-1666)
  • Portrait of Cardinal Jules Mazarin (1602-1661) Seated Within the Gallery of his Palace
  • Portrait of Louis XIV (1638-1715)

The Illustration of Theses

The majority of Nanteuil’s engraved portraits were made to decorate the theses of French students, who dedicated their academic work to contemporary dignitaries in order to earn their patronage. The dedications and portraits, originally accompanied by a summary of the thesis, aided in the advertisement of the public defense of the thesis. The elaborate defense ceremony itself involved the student’s oral dedication to the dignitary, whose portrait presided over the room. Impressions were distributed to members of the audience and sent to others. Due to the popularity of these ceremonies, the thesis portrait as a genre was standardized during the 17th century. The portraits displayed in this case, most likely all conceived to illustrate theses, indicate that Nanteuil complied with the conventions of the genre: a sober portrait bust in three-quarter view surrounded by a fictive frame. Fidelity to the sitters’ individual physiognomies and representation of their unique temperaments exemplify Nanteuil’s virtuosity as an engraver.

  • Portrait of Godefroi-Maurice de La Tour d’Auvergne (1641-1721)
  • Portrait of Pierre Bouchu (?-1718)
  • Portrait of René de Longueil, Marquis of Maisons (c. 1610-1677)
  • Portrait of Claude Regnauldin (c. 1605-1675)
  • Portrait of Henri II de La Tour d'Auvergne, Viscount of Turenne (1611-1675)

Interpreting the Masters or Working "Ad Vivum"

One of the most distinctive features of Nanteuil’s practice was his method of drawing his sitters ad vivid, i.e., from life. In order to preserve his model’s presence captured during the sitting sessions, the artist relied heavily on his drawings to translate a likeness onto the copper plate. Domenico Tempesti, Nanteuil’s Florentine pupil, wrote an account of these sessions, explaining the master’s habit of conversing and even laughing with his models, to observe their physiognomy in movement and thus gain insight into their personality. In a deviation from his normal practice but common among fellow engravers, Nanteuil occasionally based his engraved portraits on existing paintings by other masters, including Philippe de Champaigne, whose studio he likely frequented upon his arrival in Paris. This case compares two of these “interpretive prints” with two other engravings that Nanteuil made ad vivid, to demonstrate that in both instances the artist retained and indeed asserted his artistic individuality.

  • Portrait of Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis, Duke of Richelieu (1585-1642)
  • Portrait of Victor Bouthillier (1596-1670)
  • Portrait of John Evelyn (1620-1706)
  • Portrait of Mrs. Bouthillier, née Marie de Bragelogne (1590-1673)

The Passage of Time

Keppel sometimes collected multiple portraits of the same sitter, yet each composition is different. A copper plate can generate numerous identical impressions but it can also be reworked by the engraver – a process known as creating a new state. Nanteuil often resorted to this process to accommodate at a lesser cost, a sitter’s change in social status, profession or physical appearance. Some prints, however, exist as a unique state, while in some cases, the model sat for Nanteuil more than once, which resulted in the engraving of more than one plate. As the artist argued in his remarks on painting and engraving, “portraits should be considered as the work of an instant since they represent but an instant and are judged in an instant.” In other words, capturing contemporaneity was important to Nanteuil, hence the presence of the same popular sitters, but altered over time.

  • Portrait of Hardouin de Beaumont de Péréfixe (1606-1671)
  • Portrait of Hardouin de Beaumont de Péréfixe (1606-1671)
  • Portrait of Michel IV Le Tellier (1603-1685)
  • Portrait of Michel IV Le Tellier (1603-1685)