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Descourtis, Paul et Virginie, 1795-1797.

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A remarkable feat of colour printing and the representation of white and black relations


Charles-Melchior Descourtis (1753-1820); Frédéric Schall (1752-1825); Bernardin de St. Pierre (1737-1814).

Paul et Virginie.

Paris, Descourtis, 1795-1797.


6 tool-work engravings on wove paper, printed in colour from four plates: yellow, blue, red and black. With touches of hand colouring. Each ca. ca. 36,5 x 44 cm. Signed on the plates Schall pinx.; Descourtis sculp.


Complete set of six fine and vibrant impressions of colour engravings depicting scenes from Bernardin de St. Pierre's L'Histoire de Paul et Virginie (1787), one of the most important novels of 18th century France. The “exotic” story fascinated audiences and became immensely popular, prompting many artists to depict scenes from it, including Descourtis, whose set of colour engravings that we offer here is certainly one of the best contemporary depictions of scenes from the novel.
                The tale of Paul et Virginie, in which all main characters die, takes place on the island of Mauritius (then called the Île de France). It deals at length and in a slightly controversial way with white and black relations and was very influential in a change of perception of black people in the early modern Western world. Of the six main characters, two are enslaved black people named Domingue and Marie. They are depicted in the present set of plates, but mostly in a secondary role.
                The prints were engraved and published by Descourtis. Historically these prints were seen as coloured aquatints, but in fact they are a remarkable feat of multiple-plate colour printing:
                “One of the most accomplished colour printmakers of his era, Charles Melchior Descourtis produced a body of work that is small and relatively unknown. Descourtis learned his method of multiple-plate color printing from Jean François Janinet and like him used toolwork on the plate rather than aquatint, an acid immersion process used to create general areas of shading." (Art institute Chicago).

Condition: Fine impressions in vibrant colors. Sheets trimmed at the platemark at the top and under the text at the foot, removing the publisher’s impressum. A few minor scratches on the images, one plate with vertical fold, one with small crease. Margins slightly browned. Otherwise in very good condition.

Literature: Nevill 121; Portalis et Béraldi 8.

Pratima Prasad, ‘The White Native. Insularity, “Indigenism,” and Incest: the Paradoxes of Paul et Virginie’. In: Colonialism, Race, and the French Romantic Imagination. New York, Routledge, 2009.

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