Jacques-Philippe Le Bas is celebrated as being ‘the complete embodiment of 18th-century engraving.’ A master of the craft, working in the artistic zenith of Paris Le Bas would reproduce the works of many great French artists. His efforts to educate the next generation of engravers also contributed to this deserved legacy.
Le Bas was born to a poor wigmaker working in Paris. As a result, he was educated primarily by his mother. To elevate his prospects, she enrolled him under the tutelage of engraver Antoine Hérisset (1685-1769) when Le Bas was only 14.
From Hérisset Le Bas would begin to learn the basics of engraving, how lines are marked into a metal plate with delicate tools so that a print can later be produced in ink. At the same time, Le Bas also informed his own learnings by studying the works of the grand masters of engraving, such as Gérard Audran (1640-1703).
When Le Bas tired of Hérisset’s teachings, he sought advice from another engraver, Nicolas-Henri Tardieu (1674-1749). There was perhaps no one better, for Tardieu was a prominent talent, who could not only pass on his teachings but give Le Bas the vital contacts he would need for commissions and patronage.
Indeed, Tardieu introduced Le Bas to art collector Pierre Crozat (1665-1740). Crozat commissioned the young engraver to reproduce some of the paintings within his collection. After the success of Crozat’s commission, Le Bas found further success with employment by artist Charles Parrocel (1688-1752) to complete the visuals for the chapter headings of a book he was illustrating.
Le Bas’ career as an engraver was well underway, however, financial difficulties were looming on the horizon. After his 1733 marriage to Élisabeth Duret, Le Bas found himself supporting his new wife and her family, who had provided no dowry.
Such a strain on the purse strings obliged Le Bas to become creative, and he therefore established his own engraving studio and school.
Into this establishment flocked the future masters of the craft, men such as Jacques Aliamet (1726-1788), Louis-Jacques Cathelin (1738-1804), and Charles-Nicolas Cochin (1715-1790). He also took on students from abroad, such as British men William Wynne Ryland (1738-1783), and Robert Strange (1721-1792).
The workshop was a success, and according to contemporary records, ‘this little world of apprentice engravers lived as a family, eating and having fun under the maternal eye of Mme Le Bas.’ This certainly seems credible, with many making note of Le Bas’ amiable demeanour and considerate teaching method.
Alongside his tutoring, Le Bas continued to complete his own works. Indeed, a number of his students would help him complete some of his commissions.
Primarily, Le Bas reproduced works by both contemporary artists and grand masters of the previous centuries. Each plate was executed with the utmost precision and skill. From the baroque dramas of David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) and Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem (1620-1683), to the delightful rococo scenes of Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), to name only a few, Le Bas’ ability to master the lineal language of engraving enabled beautiful, fluid translations.
At a time when engravings were the best means through which to disseminate images of a wide scale to large audiences, Le Bas’ contemporaries praised him for immortalising these grand works of art. He also caught the eye of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, the preeminent art institution in France at the time. They requested he complete two portraits for their consideration to be offered both a commission and a place as a member.
With portraits not his forte, however, Le Bas struggled. He convinced the Académie to instead allow him to submit reproductions of the Rococo fantasies of Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743). Well-versed in adapting these sumptuous works into engravings, the plates were a success, and Le Bas was admitted as a member in 1743.
Such an appointment secured for Le Bas a seemingly unending line of commissions. He engraved the collections of numerous French noblemen, including the Comtesse de Verrue and the Marquis de Brunoy. He also collaborated with a number of prominent artists, including Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789). Le Bas translated ‘The Ports of France,’ Vernet’s grand commission from King Louis XV, into a series of engravings. These communicated the celebration of France’s natural beauty and naval prowess with sophisticated skill and execution.
Le Bas’ later years saw him continue to persevere with his craft right up until his dying days. Following his wife’s death he was left miserable, and financial struggles once again seemed a burden. An appointment by King Louis XVI as Court Engraver to the Cabinet des Médailles, the collection of the monarch’s historic riches, was a boost. Yet Le Bas would never recover from his wife’s death, passing away only two years later, in 1783.
Jacques-Philippe Le Bas’ multitudinous collection of engravings and prints are a lasting and incredible legacy. So, too, was the generation of engravers who followed in his footsteps, having learnt from his teachings. Today he provides a fascinating example not only of the painstaking craftsmanship of engravings but also of their importance to the 18th-century art world.
Born in Paris, France.
Married Élisabeth Duret.
Became a member of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture.
Became a member of the Académie des sciences, belles-lettres et arts de Rouen.
Appointed as Advisor to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture.
Wife Élisabeth Duret died.
Appointed Court Engraver to the Cabinet des Médailles.
Died in Paris, France.