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  • Noble Liberality and Speculative Industry in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris: Charles Coypel
  • Candace Clements

From its foundation in the mid-seventeenth century, the Paris Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture defined itself within the aristocratic ethos that judged trade, particularly the direct and open exchange of money for goods or services, as base, demeaning: dérogeant, or “dis-ennobling.” Its founding principles included strictures forbidding members to keep shop, to display work in windows or other spaces separate from their residences, and to put signs outside their studios. 1 In theory, Academy members required no promoting, being fully occupied in the royal service. In reality, most still needed and pursued commissions from more reliable patrons, often enough on humiliating terms. “I pity the plight of those . . .” wrote Charles Coypel in a letter of 1739, “who are obliged to produce something every day, and who find themselves in the sad necessity of promising to furnish the beautiful on a given day as one might promise a suit of clothes.” 2 [End Page 213]

Coypel, an Academy history painter since 1715, was writing to the director of the royal arts administration to refuse such restrictive commissions. “In sum, I wait peacefully in this dear cabinet for some happy idea to seize me so that I may transfer it to canvas and show it for your inspection.” 3 Coypel could afford high-mindedness mostly by virtue of his birth into an illustrious dynasty of painters in the royal service. He had inherited a kind of noblesse de la peinture entailing Academy privileges, Louvre quarters, and eventually, despite his generally acknowledged middling talent, the post of First Painter to the King.

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Figure 1.

F. Joullain after C. Coypel, The Memorable Judgment of Sancho Panza, ca. 1731. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Helen O. Brice, 1942. (42.64.8).

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Figure 2.

F. Joullain after C. Coypel, frontispiece, Suitte dÕestampes des principaux sujets des comŽdies de Moli□re, 1726. Paris, Biblioth□que Nationale de France.

Yet Coypel’s career included also a predilection for speculation; personal speculation in view not only of reputation but of profit; financial speculation that stood apart in his culture from lowly production and sales. An inquiry into this aspect of his activity can begin with the catalog of the posthumous sale of his estate, which included numerous engraved copper printing plates. One of the most important entries lists twenty-six plates after Coypel’s tapestry cartoons illustrating Don Quixote, published beginning in 1723 (fig. 1). Another notes six plates after his designs of scenes from Molière, first published in 1726 (fig. 2). Included in these lots, moreover, were many impressions: nearly seven thousand from the Don Quixote series alone. 4

Coypel’s ownership of these prints at the time of his death suggests that he was involved in their publication and sale, and this can be corroborated. Government registers record, in 1724, his successful application for a royal printing privilege for the Don Quixote series, conferring a limited copyright protection. 5 Coypel would not have been the first royal painter to obtain permission to publish, and estate catalogs of other painters of his generation also include plates engraved after their works. The Don Quixote print series is, however, unusual in that there also survive contractual records documenting Coypel’s financial as well as artistic investment, and his returns. 6 By 1744 his share from sale of the engravings was already reckoned at over twenty thousand livres, a very substantial sum. The most he ever received for their painted models was twenty-five hundred. 7

Another testimony to the importance of these compositions is in an advertisement for Coypel’s next such initiative, which names them right after the artist’s noblest patron: “M. Coypel, first Painter of Monseigneur the duke of Orléans, Author of the Paintings of Don Quixote, has just given to the Public four Prints engraved after his Designs, whose subjects are taken from the Comedies of Molière.” 8 This announcement, three pages long, was one of the first to appear in the Mercure de France after that...

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